Excerpt from Mystery Horse at Oak Lane Stable (Book 1)
Updated: 18 hours ago
12-year-old Cassie sets out on a Saturday morning, during the summer of 1975, with her dad and Oak Lane Stable's manager, Stan, to look at possible horses for her to buy. After rejecting the first two horses they looked at, the three pull into a rundown farm and are shocked at what they discover . . .
Horse With No Name
Stan pulled into a long dirt driveway full of deep ruts. He tried to avoid them, but I guessed there were too many of them. I didn't see the house and barn when we first drove in, mostly trees. I watched for them as we slowly bumped along.
As we drove around a tree-lined curve, the farm came into view. I noticed the house first. Its light gray siding was falling off in patches, and the roof had holes in it. Heaps of stuffed black garbage bags poked out from tall grass that surrounded the yard. A once-red riding lawn mower had been parked under a tree near what was maybe once the garage. Rusted machinery was left deserted in odd spots around the farmyard. The old dairy barn had rotted and sunken in the middle—half of its roof lay on the ground. Most of the other smaller sheds had fallen over and lay on top of their spilled-out contents.
And then, I saw them. I covered my mouth to stop from crying out.
Four Thoroughbreds were standing in a muddy paddock next to the broken-down barn. Each one was skinnier than the next. I remembered reading a story in one of my horse magazines about a horse that was rescued from being starved. I wished I'd never have to see anything like that in real life. I wasn’t so lucky.
My stomach felt extra-gross.
“Are we at the right place?” Dad asked as he looked over the dumpy farm. “Does somebody actually live here? What's wrong with the horses?”
“This was the address the guy gave me. Looks like someone's not feeding the horses. Wait here. I'll see if anybody is home.” Stan had parked the truck and gotten out.
“Dad, can I go by the horses?”
“No. Wait until Stan gets back.” He ran his hand through his hair. He didn't take his eye off of the horses.
I wanted to grab some grass for them. There was plenty of it around. Several bales of hay sat near the paddock too.
Why wasn't anybody taking care of the horses? Did the people forget about them? Would they like it if no one gave them any food? What was wrong with them?
Stan came out of the house with one of the shortest grown-up men I'd ever seen. He wore a blue-checked shirt, dirty jeans, a straw hat, and pointy-toed cowboy boots. They walked over to us.
Stan said, “This is Roger.”
Roger's face had a deep pink scar that ran across his right cheek to the corner of his mouth. Roger smiled goofy. “Howdy, folks. Come on. I'll show you my horses. Is this the little girl who's going to ride?”
I stood by Dad's side. “I'm NOT a little girl. I'm twelve, soon to be thir—”
“Don't be rude.” Dad gave me his “behave” look.
The horses were skinnier than I first thought. When I got closer to the worn wooden fence, I could almost count their ribs. Their hip bones poked out, and three of the four had sunken-in eyes. Their coats were caked with the dried mud. I wasn't even sure I wanted to go in the paddock because the ground was so gross.
Would I ever get the muck off my boots if I go in there?
“I don't know about this,” Dad said. “Do you want to do this, Cass?”
“I want to see them.” I crawled in by the horses through some of the broken fence boards sort of fixed and tied up with laundry rope. I made my way through the mud. The sticky clumps made my feet feel heavy. It wasn't long before sweat drops started to tickle the sides of my forehead. I was afraid I'd lose a boot or, worse, slip and fall in the gooey muck.
The paddock stunk from rotting manure. I swatted away the flies that buzzed around me, and the horses, and a barely-filled water trough that had green stuff growing in it. An oily smell came from a tractor that was parked inside the fallen-down barn, next to a pile of old rubber tires that baked in the sun. At first, a group of pigeons cooed while they roosted on the open barn rafters. But when they were startled by me, they took flight, flapping above me in a wide circle, before landing exactly in the same spot where they had started from. I was sweating and breathing hard when I reached the horses. I heard Dad, Stan, and Roger talking to each other.
I tried to go by the three skinniest horses that stuck together, but they kept turning away from me. I looked over at the bay horse who stood by itself. The horse had a wide forehead, a sign of intelligence, and large brown eyes. There was a small white star on the forehead. The horse softly nickered to me as I approached it.
When I reached the bay, I saw he was a gelding. He was smaller and in better shape than the other three horses. I ran my left hand over his neck and under a black mane full of burdocks. My forehead only came to his withers, so I couldn't quite see over his back. Since I was 5' 5,” I knew the horse was around 15.2 hands. I looked down at his legs, but couldn't tell if there were any white socks—mud coated all four of them. The horse tried to swish flies with a black tail thick with more burdocks. I felt the dirty, brittle hair along his side. The bay turned and gently nuzzled my left arm.
My throat tightened, and tears started. I looked away from Dad and the other men.
How had my special day ended up with me standing in smelly gunk with starving horses? This wasn't how things were supposed to go.
I pretended to swipe at flies, but I really wiped off my damp cheeks with the back of my hand. I sniffed and snuffled a few times.
Roger said to me, “He's one of the better geldings I've got. He'll cost you $200. The others I'll let go for $125 each.”
I gave the bay a final pat on the shoulder and made my way back across the paddock, each footstep heavier than the last one. I finally made it to the fence and climbed out through the broken boards. I wiped off the muck that stuck to my boots with the grass and weeds growing alongside the fence.
“Stan … Cass … a word, please.” Dad motioned for us to follow him to the truck. “The horses are in terrible shape. I’m not wasting my money on one that's already sick. We don't even know if they're broke. Cass, we'll have to keep looking for a decent horse for you.”
“But Dad, I—”
“There's no way I'm buying any of these horses.” Dad crossed his arms.
“You know, the bay is a nice horse,” Stan said. “He needs to put on some weight, but he's got a decent temperament. He'll look better once he's cleaned—”
“No, let's go.” Dad seemed to have made up his mind.
Roger shouted at us, “Decide anything yet? You know, I've got a truck coming at two o'clock today. If you want any of the horses, you'll have to make up your minds pretty quick. One way or another, I'll get my money from you or the feed plant.”
“Feed plant?” Dad shot a look to Stan. “What's Roger talking about?”
Stan cleared his throat. “He's talking about the pet food processing plant. The horses—”
“Dad! We can't let the horses go there! They'll kill them!” I grabbed Dad's arm. “Please Dad, can’t we buy them? Maybe the bay? Stan thinks he's a good horse. He didn't bite or kick. He even nickered to me when I went up to him. You saw how he tried to follow me out when I left the paddock. He—”
“Cassie, no. I have to be practical about this. Stan, can we leave?” Dad walked over to the truck and opened the passenger door.
“I'll tell him we're leaving.” Stan went over to Roger, they talked for a while, then Stan walked back over to us.
We got into the truck and started down the driveway.
I took a last look at the horses. The bay picked up his head and watched us as we drove past. My eyes filled with tears. “Dad, please. Can't we at least buy the bay?” I tried not to bawl like a baby in front of Stan.
Dad looked at the horses, then turned away. He dropped his eyes, adjusted the stainless steel watch on his wrist he had gotten as a present from work, and shook his head no.
As we passed by Roger, who was still standing near the fence and the horses, he smiled and held up his index and middle fingers on his right hand, with what looked like the peace sign.
I was sure he meant two o'clock.
---from Mystery Horse at Oak Lane Stable