It was the end of the school day and Mary headed toward the bike rack absorbed in thought. She was supposed to go to Volleyball practice on Thursdays after school until 5pm. It would take her 45 minutes to ride her bike to the barn and it would be dark soon after she arrived. With any luck, she could get a ride home from Dee after feed time. As if Dee would be in any frame of mind to chauffeur her around. But if she helped Dee with the chores then asking for a ride home wouldn’t be all bad. If the stars aligned, she could call her mom and brave the yelling and hopefully stay the night at the ranch. She didn’t care if the kids gave her a bad time for wearing the same clothes to school two days in a row. There was always something kids could pick on you about.
Mary knew that she should call Dee and let her know she was coming. She should call home and let them know where she was going. She could call the Volleyball coach and let him[ Fides = the goddess of trust] know that she wasn’t going to be there. But she didn’t have the energy to listen to anyone tell her where she should and shouldn’t be. She didn’t have the strength to listen to one more adult go on and on about responsibility and accountability. What she needed was to smell and touch and be around horses. If that meant facing a dressing down from half a dozen people later today or tonight, well so be it. She pedaled her bike and raced along the road as if it were a champion steeplechaser and she it’s promising new jockey. They accelerated up and down the four winding and undulated miles between school and the barn. As she rode the last mile up the canyon she slowed and looked around. She smiled at crows and robins as they flew overhead, she spotted three deer grazing on the hillside. She had to brake hard for a feral cat who crossed her path trotting jauntily across the road with a baby rabbit in her jaws.
“Poor bunny” Mary exclaimed aloud. She cruised into the barn muscles warm from the ride, face flushed from the sunshine and the last uphill climb to the ranch gates. Metta and Joey were dozing in the arena together, their lips drooping and eyes almost shut. Metta’s coat was less rough each time Mary saw her and her body relaxed as it filled in. Colette had trimmed the scrawny hairs in her mane – it looked even and kept, laying flat on the right side of her neck. Mary thought about how crusted and twisted her mane was the day she arrived. Metta was still thin but she had lost the dying look she arrived with. Her legs, now cleaned and the scabs and scars beginning to fade had the look of the athlete that she once almost certainly was and Mary dared to think that one day she might be rideable.
Her reverie was interrupted with three trotting hounds approaching, tails low, ears flat. In hound language this means “I know you well, and I’m glad you are here – can we go running together?” Mary dismounted her bike, knelt low and let the hounds surround her, their tails high, their kisses eager and happy.
Mary parked her bike behind the tack room and ventured into the barn. She took pleasure in the smells and the sounds of horses munching hay, the harumphing of the hounds laying down, flapping long ears and yawning. She righted a tub of supplements that the goats had pulled off a barrel and spilled into the barn aisle. A chocolate brown face with an oversized blaze, small ears and large, intelligent eyes peered over the stall door and greeted Mary with a hopeful look. Mary’s heart melted on the spot.
For the last two years, Fides had been her special project. A miserably failed racehorse, Fides had limped into Dee’s barn from his third last-place finish in a row. The vet snexamined him and found nothing wrong. But as with all his races, he was wracked with all over body soreness the day following his race. His pedigree indicated that he could run distances yet his body rebelled and his owners were disappointed to say the least. He minced into the barn painfully making his way down the shed row and into a stall where he lay down and slept on and off for the next couple of months. Ann sent a note along with the horse “This is Fides, son of the great ZoAster. He raced three times and was last each time. We took x-rays and blood tests and we can’t find anything wrong with him. He might be the laziest horse I’ve known. Your kids will probably love him.”
It was love at first sight for Mary. The little brown horse basked in her care. After some rest, Dee put the first few rides into him and turned the reins over to Mary. “He’s lazy, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Take your time and there’s no reason that a horse built this well can’t jump the moon if you figure out what motivates him.”
Mary set out to earn Fides’ trust, which, like with most ex racehorses proved easy. Shy of loud noises and sudden movements, but naturally friendly, the progeny of the great stallion ZoAster were notoriously fidgety, flighty and intelligent – much like their famous father.
Fides loved attention and Mary set out to teach him tricks, which he took to with alacrity. In less than a month’s time, Fides would smile on command, flipping his lip into the air revealing his upper teeth, he would fold his front leg and bow, his chest and chin to the ground and he would step up onto a pedestal each with just one word and one treat from Mary. Fides loved to please. He took to riding in the arena well, but trails proved a different matter. He would skitter and shy from a bird taking flight, he would spin and run from a fallen branch on the trail. Water crossing was out of the question. Fides could smell water a quarter of a mile away and would snort and refuse to go forward. Even stepping across a mud puddle could prove a problem. Mary engaged Colette to take out Joey, their trustiest and steadiest trail horse and they spent hours walking the trails together, soothing him with treats and kind words. At one point, Mary would simply lead Fides on the trail, not riding him, but walking with him and giving him the time to stop and snort and smell a scary branch. She knew patience was her only tool and her reward would be great when she could gallop the lovely Fides across the hayfield and over the jumps.
When Fides arrived, he was a well balanced, smallish horse. In the two years he had been at Timshel, he grew into a large and beautifully conformed animal. Fides was a late bloomer whose racing schedule conflicted with his growth spurt. His seeming laziness more a product of his body morphing into the grand animal he was today. Mary felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
Mary ducked into the tack room changed into some boots and grabbed and oiled jacket from a peg by the door. She stuffed a couple carrots into the pockets and picked up a heavy wooden groom box from the shelf. She slipped into Fides stall and he mugged her pockets for the carrots he knew he would find.
“Not so fast buster.” Mary smiled. “Let’s do some tricks first.” Mary looked Fides in the eyes, broke off a bit of carrot into her left hand and brushed his face away from her hand. “Fides, are you ready?” She waited for Fides to acknowledge her with a look. “Fides, smile.” She waved the first two fingers of her right hand in front of Fides’ nose. Fides lifted his upper lip in a comic gesture and Mary laughed and rewarded him with the carrot bit. When he had finished chewing Mary broke off larger bit of carrot. “Fides, are you ready?” She asked again. Fides answered with a look. “Fides, bow. She stepped to the side and tapped him behind the elbow with the carrot. Like a gallant prince bowing to a princess, the giant horse dropped his head, bent his left foreleg underneath him and lowered his front end to the stall floor. Mary fed him the rest of the carrots. When Fides righted himself, Mary wrapped her arms around his neck, buried her face into his shoulder and basked in his presence.
She spent the next 30 minutes alone in the barn brushing his coffee colored coat to a velvety sheen She picked the straw from his tail and oiled his hooves. She wondered where Dee might be, the barn was so quiet, there should have been some kids there for lessons. Dee’s old truck was in the driveway where it should have been and the dogs were out, but there was no sign of Dee or of any clients. Barn rules prevented Mary from riding alone and so instead of fetching tack for Fides, she patted him on the nose, put the groom box back on the shelf in the tack room and went looking for Dee, three hounds in tow.
She found Dee in the house at the kitchen table, a cold cup of coffee in one hand and the other holding the phone. She looked up when Mary entered the house with a quizzical look which translated “Thursday? You aren’t here on Thursday. Is everything allright?” Mary shrugged meaning “Yeah, mostly.” And took the cup from Dee’s hand and refilled it from the coffeepot on the counter while helping herself to a glass of water. She sat down and with her look asked Dee if it was okay to stay in the kitchen while Dee talked on the phone. Dee mirrored Mary’s earlier shrug also meaning “Yeah, mostly.” Mary made herself useful by going to the sink and washing dishes. Mary surmised Dee must be talking to Ann’s mom, Gayle. Mary met Gayle last year when she visited for two days. Dee had loved showing Gayle around the barn and introducing her to the horses, dogs, cats and goats.
“You’re kidding? She won’t let you bring her to your house, she won’t come here? Dee put her hand to her forehead and leaned heavily on it.
“So the pelvis is broken, but they aren’t going to operate? What else did they say?”
“So you met Jude huh? Handsome devil isn’t he?” Dee laughed and Mary could hear laughing and nervous chatter on the other end of the phone.
“A jockey? No way, Ann never went in for pin-heads.”
“No, never heard her mention that name.”
“Really? And he’s nice too?” Dee sounded surprised.
“Is there any chance you can convince her to come here while she heals up?”
Mary finished up the dishes, wiped the counter and mopped up the spilled coffee around the pot. She topped off Dee’s cup one last time before she turned off and rinsed the pot.
“Look Gayle, we are all in your hands. You figure out what she needs and let me know what I can do. Yeah, I love you too. Call me tomorrow. Okay. Bye.”
Dee hung up the phone and looked around at Mary. “Thanks for cleaning up the kitchen. I guess I let it get pretty messy. You heard about Ann’s wreck somehow?”
“Colette sent me a text. What happened?”
“It happened yesterday morning and there were a couple of news stories about it. She was working a horse and another horse going the other way reared up, lost the rider and then bolted directly into them as they came around the turn. She didn’t even see it coming. Killed both horses on the spot.”
“Wow.” Was all Mary could say.
“There’s nobody here – I thought you’d have lessons today.”
“I cancelled them. I couldn’t bring myself to teach and anyway, I didn’t know if I was going to have to drive down south to the hospital. I would have, but I can’t get anyone to watch the ranch and so I’m just really glad that Ann’s mom is there.”
“That’s who you were talking to?”
“Yeah, Gayle’s the best. Closest thing to a mom I ever had besides Sela Phillip.”
Mary knew that Dee and her brother had been raised by a single father who travelled extensively for work. Dee took care of her little brother until he was swept away by drugs. Mary knew that Dee had worked for lessons at any farm that would have her and that horses had saved her from a similar fate. Sela Philip took Dee in when she was 15 and Dee worked hard for her every day until she married and moved on to the racetrack at the tender age of 20.
Mary knew that Sela was killed last year while changing a flat tire on her horse trailer on the side of the highway. Sela was transporting a neighbor’s horse to the vet hospital on a foggy morning.
Dee sighed heavily, sipped her coffee and asked Mary what she was doing at the barn on a Thursday.
“I guess I just needed to see Fides and all the horses and check on you.”
“Do you need a ride home?”
“If you could use my help, I could probably stay over.”
“Does that mean you need me to call your house and ask if it’s okay?”
Mary looked at her feet. “Would you?”
Dee arched an eyebrow at Mary, who wouldn’t look up. “You go out and check on Joey and Metta, throw them some extra feed, grab Ivy for me and Fides for you. It looks like both of us need a trail ride more than anything. I’ll call your mom. Now get out of here and feed those horses.”
Mary darted out the door, skipping on the way, dogs swirling and ear flapping behind her. Dee warily dialed the phone and exhaled in relief when she got through to voicemail, eager to avoid a conversation with Mary’s mom.
“This is Dee and I was hoping that Mary could help me with some projects here at the ranch. If its all right with you, I’d like to have her stay over. If it’s a problem, give me a call back, but if it’s not, I’ll just plan to have her at school tomorrow. Okay thanks.” Dee hung up, grabbed her gloves off the bookshelf by the door and headed out for a much needed trail ride.