Authors: Dandi Daley Mackall
Tags: #Retail, #Ages 8 & Up
It was just after seven that same night, butÂ it felt a lot later as I edged down the stallway toward Amigo. Nickers gave a friendly nicker, and I hoped Amigo would get the message. Maybe he would trust my horse, even though he clearly didn't trust me. If this kept up, people would have to start bringing their horses to
the Horse Gentler.
Slowly I closed the gap between Amigo and me. “It's okay, Amigo.” I tried to keep my voice low and easy, but I was too wound up from Gram and Sal.
The little gelding shied away from me.
I reached out for him, but he flinched. “I'm so sorry, Amigo.” I had to get him to his stall. I grabbed for his halter.
His head shot out, and he bit me.
“Ow!” I jerked my hand away. He'd caught me a good one on my upper arm, biting right through my jacket.
Amigo's back twitched as if he had a swarm of flies after him. He cowered closer to the back wall, waiting for me to punish him.
“I'm not going to hurt you. I know you're just scared.” I'd need to teach him not to bite. But it would have to wait until I gained his trust.
Carefully I touched his withers, out of reach of those surprisingly sharp teeth. My arm still stung, hurting more as my jacket rubbed against the sore spot.
Amigo flinched, but I didn't pull away. I scratched him, lightly trailing my fingers over his withers, at the base of his white mane.
He trembled but didn't shy away. As IÂ kept it up, I felt him relax a little. “That's it,” I whispered.
Nickers nickered. The foal made her muffled squeal. I was overdue getting her goat's milk. I'd have to milk Annie again.
“Easy, Amigo,” I urged, turning back to him. He tried to jerk his head from me, but I got a good grip on his rhinestone-studded halter.
It wasn't easy, but I put Amigo into the stall next to Nickers. Nickers tried to be friendly and snort hello over the stall divider, but Amigo wouldn't have it. He turned his back on us and moved to the farthest corner of the stall. His neck drooped, and his tail was tucked between his legs.
It was going to take a lot to win him over.
Annie Goat fought me while I milked her. I barely got enough for one bottle. I kept hoping Eddy Barker would stop by. Maybe he knew one of Granny Barker's secrets about getting along with her goat.
Barker is in seventh grade with me. His whole familyâwhich includes his five brothersâgot to see the foal's birth on Christmas Eve. The next day Barker brought Annie Goat over, on loan from Granny Barker. Granny B claims her husband was the best African-American farmer in the Midwest. She'd moved into town to live with her son and family, but she refused to sell the farm, which is where she'd been keeping Annie.
I could have used Barker's help. I could have used M's help too. M, a pretty unique friend of mine who goes by a letter instead of a name, had helped me deliver the foal. He'd helped me feed Friendly the first two days too, when we had to give her a little bit of colostrum every hour or so. But M's parents had taken him along on one of their Habitat for Humanity trips. I figured that, about now, M and his parents were hammering shingles on a little house in Cleveland.
I finally got the whole bottle of milk down Friendly, but she struggled so much she made Annie look like Miss Congeniality. I had to admit I was doing some struggling of my own. The best tool any horse person has is patience, but I kept ending up shorthanded.
I walked over to Nickers, and she rested her head on my shoulder so we could talk eye-to-eye. I scratched her dish jowl and saw myself in her big brown eyes. “You know, girl, Lizzy has been after me to make my New Year's resolutions this year. I think I just thought of my first resolution: I, Winnie Willis, resolve to be more patient.”
Nickers exhaled, blowing gently in my face. It's the way horses greet each other. Native Americans used to greet their horses by blowing into their nostrils. My mom taught me to do the same thing.
I returned Nickers' greeting, feeling myself calm down for the first time all day.
Something bumped against the barn, right outside the stall.
“Who's there?” I shouted, my calm quick-freezing, then shattering into pieces. “Who's out there?”
Nickers backed away from me to hover over the foal. Why had I shouted like that?
Annie didn't like the shouting either. She hopped on her back legs and hooked her front hooves over the stable door, as if she might try scaling the wall.
My nerves had sprung back that fast. I could have climbed the wall with her.
“Down, Annie!” I shouted. But, of course, the shouting just made her worse. She tried harder to scramble over the door. I had to lift her hooves off to get her down.
Something thumped from outside again.
“Who's out there?” I called.
A cat meowed. Then I heard purring. And more purring. So much purring that it sounded like a humming band.
And I had my answer.
“Hey, Catman! Be right out.” I took the back stall door to the paddock.
Just as suspected, I found Calvin “Catman” Coolidge sitting in the snow outside Nickers' stall. His long legs were totally covered by a swarm of cats, including Churchill, Nelson, and a pure white longhair I was pretty sure I'd never seen before .Â .Â . although Catman owns about a thousand cats, and I might have missed one. My sister calls Catman the “Pied Piper of Cats.”
He was staring at the sky, his long blond hair blowing like a flag in the icy breeze. The white cat snuggled inside Catman's camouflage army jacket. Catman would have made a great hippie, like back in the 60s. Lizzy says he's living history, but he's only in eighth grade.
“New cat?” I asked, easing down into the snow next to him. Shivering, I stuffed my straggling hair under my stocking cap and tried to tuck my jacket under me.
Catman, on the other hand, wore no hat or gloves but showed no signs of being cold. Maybe it was the cats curled up on him like a fur coat.
“Rice,” Catman answered. He and Lizzy are opposites when it comes to talking. If Lizzy's a racing Thoroughbred, Catman's an old Clydesdale, not about to take a step if a step's not needed.
“The white cat's name is Rice?” I asked.
Catman zipped up his jacket so only theÂ cat's white furry head stuck out. “David Rice Atchinson. Rice, for short.”
I got ready for another history lesson. Every time Catman names a new cat, I learn something I never got in history class. “You gotta tell me who David Rice Atchoo's son was.”
“Atchinson,” Catman corrected. “U.S. president. For a day.”
“No way!” Maybe I couldn't still name all the presidents like we had to in fifth grade, but at least I would have recognized the name.
Catman used his index finger to push his gold wire-rimmed glasses up his long nose. Even in the dark, his eyes shone true blue. “Zachary Taylor succeeded James Polk at noon on March 4, 1849.”
I recognized Taylor's and Polk's names.
“But it was a Sunday,” Catman continued. “And Zach refused to take the oath on the Sabbath. Far out, true? So under the Succession Act of 1792, Senator Atchinson, pro temporeÂ of the Senate, took the oath and became president for a day. Groovy, huh? The new prez dug being top dog so much, he gave all his buddies cabinetÂ seats.”
I wondered if Ms. Mertz, my fifth-grade teacher, had any idea.
Hundreds of bright silver dots were sprinkled across the black sky, like heaven's private snow. Catman kept staring up at the same spot.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
“Polaris,” he answered.
I leaned toward him, trying to follow his exact line of vision. But I couldn't tell the North Star from the South Star.
Note to self: Is there a South Star? And if not, whyÂ not?
Catman pointed straight through the branches of a big oak tree. “Tip of the Little Dipper.”
I followed his finger through the leafless
of the oak's trunk. Just a little to the left, I made out four stars in a crooked square, with more stars curved like a handle. “Is that it?”
Catman shook his head without taking his eyes off the sky.
Dipper. Follow the pointer stars, those two at the end of the Big Dipper's cup.”
I let my eyes draw a line from the two stars, straight across the sky. The line led to a dim star that lay directly through the
of the oak tree. It looked like the tip of the Little Dipper. “That one?” I asked.
“Polaris,” Catman answered.
Wilhemina, Catman's fat orange tabby, waddled from Catman's lap to mine, purred and rubbed her face on my arm, then hopped back.
Cats totally trust the Catman. Usually horses trust me the same way. And dogs trust Barker. It had been great hanging out with Catman and Barker when we moved to Ashland. We even share a part-time job at Pat's Pets, manning the Pet Help Line.
I fought off a yawn. I didn't have time for tired. “I better get going. If I don't at least do one imprinting lesson with the foal, I don't think I'll sleep tonight.”
Catman finally looked down at me. He raised one eyebrow nearly to the top of his forehead, without even moving the other brow.
“Imprinting,” I explained, “is touchingÂ theÂ foal, handling her kind of like a mare wouldÂ nuzzle her foal. Native Americans used to talkÂ to horsesÂ
birth, then handle the foalsÂ allÂ over the first few days after birth. That'sÂ imprintingâshowing foals that even though you're a human, you're a friend, and they can trust you.”
“Not so far-out,” I said. “I've hardly touched the foal. She's still scared of me.”
An owl hooted.
Catman hooted back, holding up the two-fingered peace sign to the invisible bird. “Peace!” he called out.
. Why couldn't I be more like Catman? More peaceful? A lot of
things had happened in the past year, including too many fights with my dad, too much friction with his
Madeline, and too many problems at school.
Note to self:
New Year's Resolution #2: I, Winnie Willis, resolve to be more peaceful.
I leaned back and gazed at the sky. My arm had finally stopped hurting where Amigo bit it. Twinkling stars sent down sparkles across the snowy pasture. Bare branches made purple, wavy shadows on the glittering snow, patterns in dapple-gray, like Gracie.
I breathed in crisp, fresh air, earthy smoke from someone's chimney, Catman's musky smell, leather, and horse. Horse nickers from the barn blended with winter soundsâsnow crunching, branches creaking and complaining, wind whistling through the eaves.
It was working.
. I was entering a new year, a peaceful year. Everything would go smooth as snow, starting right now.
. I could feel it in my bones.
Bam! Bam bam!
Inside, Annie Goat pawed the stall floor.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
The pawing turned into kicking. The stall doorÂ rattled as the goat's kicks grew louder.
I tried to ignore it.
Peace. Feel it in my bones.
Nickers whinnied. She stamped the ground. A cat screeched. The goat cried.
I jumped up. Cats flew in all directions.
I raced inside the barn just in time to see the stall door fly open under the goat's hooves.
“Annie!” I cried, jumping into the stall. NickersÂ and Friendly scuffled to the far corner.
“It's breaking out!” Madeline Edison's cry filled the barn.
“Winnie!” Dad shouted.
something, for crying out loud!”
I raced to the busted stall door, throwing myself between the charging Annie Goat and the screaming Madeline Edison.
Annie stopped and lowered her head. She pawed the ground like she was a bull getting set for the bullfight of her life.
I stared back at her, waiting, my mind racing.
Peace? Feel it in my bones?
Note to self: Never trust your bones.