Chapter 1

 


    With a solid bang the doors slammed shut. The bus rumbled away leaving young Finny in a cloud of grey dust and choking exhaust. Having never been this far from home Finny took a long look at the desolate surroundings. Two things crossed her mind. One, this was where “out in the middle of nowhere” was and two, if her mom found out what she was doing, she was so dead.


   Typical for a California summer the temperature was over a hundred and Finny was beginning to sweat. Not from the heat and not because she lied to her mom, plain and simple, she was scared. After a deep breath to steady her nerves, she started walking.


   Crazy Chester was leaning against his rotting wood porch when Finny came down the dirt drive. His horse Sky, soon to be hers, stood quietly by his side. Finny was afraid of Crazy Chester. All the kids were; his name scared them off, which probably was the point.


    Chester turned away to hide the tears in his eyes when he handed Finny the lead. “He’s got the blood of champions running through him girl, remember that.” Geez he’s old Finny thought. She wasn’t sure how old, somewhere near a hundred was her guess but she wasn’t that good at aging old people. The old man patted the horse’s neck. He didn’t want to give up his horse, or his home. But like his horse, Chester was thin, malnourished and neglected. His house, little more than a shack was falling down. The county intervened, then finally his family. He didn’t seem crazy to Finny now, and it broke her heart to see him cry. She didn’t think really old people cried. Thought they had life so figured out nothing made them sad anymore.


    “I promise I’ll give him a super good home. I work at a ranch, I know all about horses and how to take care of them.”
space “That’s good girl. I know you’d treat him right, could tell soon as I saw ya.” Finny told Chester her name was Josephine or Finny for short, but he called her girl anyway.


    “His father was blazing fast girl, blazing fast, unbeatable on the track, set to be the next Seabiscuit, no question about it.” Finny watched Chester grow young as he spoke, “His first race…won by three lengths, second race, seven, by the third people were showing up just to see him. I had the jockey hold him back, didn’t want everyone to know what we had. That’s strategy girl. It’s not just fast horses that win races.” He tapped his crooked finger to his temple. “You gotta be smart. Sky’s father won that race by four lengths, jockey said he wasn’t even trying.” Chester’s young eyes dimmed. “The fifth was the end, I’d like to think it wasn’t by a man’s hand and it was an act of god but I’ll never know for sure. When a ‘one in a million’ horse shows up, it gets some people nervous. Throws things out of kilter. Suddenly what was a great horse no longer measures up.” Chester gave a small sad shake of his head. His faraway look still deeply vested in the past. “Bell rang and the gate stuck half open. All thousand pounds of him crashed into it. The horse jammed half through then thrashed and fought to get loose. The jockey thankfully was able to jump clear but the horse in a panic, flipped. By the time we got the gate opened and him free, it was too late, his leg was broke.” Chester took a deep breath, then a handkerchief from his pocket and dried his eyes. “Saddest day of my life. Doc said there was nothing they could do…a part of me died with him that day.” Finny’s eyes were stinging hot trying hard not to cry when Chester looked her way. 


    “Sorry girl, got lost in the past, just wanted to let you know about your horse and where he’s from.”
    “Please tell me everything if you don’t mind.” The moment Finny laid eyes on the horse her heart went out to him. He carried a regal-ness that defied his pitiful condition.

    “Not at all girl, not at all.” Chester cleared his throat and readjusted his thin backside on the porch. “So, that was the end of an era for my wife and me, God rest her. I’d planned after a few years of racing to retire him to stud. He could pass on his lightning speed and we could sit back and collect the stud fees but of course that never happened… Well, we didn’t know it happened. Turned out the little rascal, not even three years old jumped the fence into the neighbor’s pasture. This neighbor had champion warmblood jumping horses. I’m talking world cup horses, best you can get. The next morning the groom found him and walked him over and put him back in our corral. He didn’t know my horse wasn’t a gelding so he never mentioned a thing to anyone. But as months passed my neighbor noticed his most prized horse, his world-cup winning mare, kept gaining weight. Sick with worry he had the vet out checking for this and that only to find out she’s pregnant.” A big crooked smile crossed Chester’s face making Finny smile too.“So, he calls me up and after talking to the groom we figured out what happened. I tell you girl, he was beyond mad. If steam could come outta ears he would’ve been doing it then. His warmblood that was scheduled to fly to Europe to compete in the Olympic trials, had to stay home to have a thoroughbred’s baby.” Chester slapped his thigh and laughed like it happened yesterday. “I was thrilled to have a part of my great horse alive but as a thoroughbred-warmblood cross he’d never race and my neighbor only had purebred warmbloods. He had no use for a cross but I didn’t care. When Sky was weaned, the groom brought him here and he’s been with me ever since.”
    “Wow, that’s amazing.” Finny, awed by the story, traced her fingers lightly down the horse’s soulful face. Kind, intelligent eyes looked back at her. “I understand why you think he’s destined to be a champion.”
    “It’s not just his mom and pop girl, this horse is all heart, all heart.” Chester began to choke up again. Finny tried to steer him back to things positive.
pace “So how long have you had him, I mean, how old is he?”
    “Gosh, going on twelve by now.”
    “Oh, that’s not too old. How is he to ride?”
    “Don’t know, never broke him. By the time he was old enough, my wife had passed, I’d gotten sick and next thing I know my kids are making me move into some concentration camp they’re passing off as a retirement village.” Chester gave a pained chuckle at his statement, not bitter, just resolved.
    “Sorry.”
    “It’s okay, girl, I’m glad Sky here has someone now who can get him trained up. He’d never run but I bet like his momma he could jump and if he has half the speed of his papa he’d be unbeatable.”
     “Thanks Chester, thanks for letting me have him, I won’t let you down.”
     “I asked at the feed store about you, they told me you’d treat him right and that’s what matters to me.”
     “I will, I promise.”
     “Okay girl…good luck. Sky, prove me right.” Chester gave Sky his final pat, then climbed the stairs to his porch. After one backward glance he walked into his house.
     As hard as it was on Chester she needed to get Sky gone as fast as she could. When they got to the road and turned the corner the horse stopped and looked back. It occurred to her that at twelve years old, since he wasn’t broke and Chester was elderly, this most likely was the first time he’d ever left the property. Finny stroked his face then pulled again urging him to follow. Other than not wanting to go he wasn’t fighting her.
     Finny gave Sky a more objective once over. He was very tall, over seventeen hands, dark bay without a white mark on him. He was also painfully thin, had several bald patches across his back and hindquarters and a huge solid knot for a tail. Sky, still looking toward his home nickered softly breaking Finny’s heart. She knew taking him was for the best but Chester was all he’d known and she was sure Sky had loved him. A few gentle tugs got him moving again. It was getting late. The original plan was to ride him home. At a trot or gallop the eleven miles could be made in an hour or so. Finny hadn’t known Sky wasn’t broke and in such bad shape. At the rate they were moving, it’d be long after dark before they got home. It was unlikely her mom would be mad if she were late. Probably wouldn’t notice. Finny’s twin half sisters, just four, kept her busy.


    Sky tugged at Finny’s arm. She found he was like a huge baby seeing the world for the first time. He wasn’t afraid of the new things around him. If he saw something interesting he pulled her to it. Finny was quickly falling in love.


    The pair stayed off the road and used the trails through the fields. The roads would be faster but introducing him to noisy cars would come when she knew him better. If he were to spook and bolt stopping him could be impossible. Up ahead was a road they’d have to cross. It was narrow and rarely traveled. Once to it, a car indeed was coming. Finny moved Sky back and waited for the car to pass. To her horror, it was Elsa, a not so nice girl who rode at the barn where she worked. With nowhere to hide Finny braced herself and hoped Elsa’s life would be interesting enough to do something other than torment her. The fancy convertible sports car, Elsa’s sweet sixteenth-birthday present, squealed to a stop…Her life, Finny realized, must bore her to tears. Elsa didn’t say a word. She just stared then slowly shook her head and motioned to her two friends in the car to look. Elsa’s passengers began to laugh. Then Elsa did, and her laughter continued to grow so hard she clutched her midsection and fell over. Sky decided Elsa’s car was so interesting wouldn’t move past it.
    “Finny, seriously, that mangy bag of bones is the horse you’ve been telling everyone about, your dream horse? God, way to dream big Finny. It’s so pathetic I don’t have the heart to insult you.”
    “You’re right about you being totally heartless Elsa, I couldn’t agree more.” Finny gave Sky a firm tug and much to her relief he began to follow her across the road and away from the girls.
    “You think you can insult me, trailer trash?” Finny ignored her and kept walking.
    “I’m going to see Jeff right now and tell him that if your diseased bag of bones steps on the property, putting my horses at risk. I’m moving them all immediately.” Finny didn’t react-she just kept going not wanting to give Elsa the satisfaction. Jeff Hastings, her boss and Elsa’s trainer would never jeopardize his high profile client with four show horses over a lowly working student.


    The red convertible raced off spitting dust and gravel as it went. Finny knew without a doubt the gates at Silver Spur would be locked by the time she arrived. Up ahead on the trail Finny spotted a small scrub oak that had fallen over. She used it to sit and rest, then let some slack out on the lead so Sky could graze. Finny dropped her chin in her hand. She didn’t know what to do with a hungry, tired, giant of a horse and nowhere to put it. On top of that it was getting dark. Calling home wasn’t an option, never in a million years. Finny wished she knew why her mom Beth was so against anything horse. Just this morning she grumbled, “Finny can’t you find something to do that doesn’t ruin your clothes and keep you from making friends?” Frustrated, Finny wiped at the tears dampening her cheeks. She wondered why someone like Elsa, who had everything a sixteen-year-old girl could want, chose to be so mean. Trailer trash, Finny thought, I don’t even live in a trailer anymore… Wait-that might work! Finny jumped up and pulled on Sky’s lead urging him to follow her. She changed course and headed to the end of town, to her old home.


    The screaming started two days after Finny’s eighth birthday. She was playing with her new Breyer horse when the fight began. She cantered her plastic horse across the carpet and closed her bedroom door. This was just another fight, or so she thought. Fifteen minutes later the front door slammed and her dad, who Finny worshiped, walked out of her life.


    With a shake of her head Finny forced out old memories and continued to plan. The sun had passed the horizon but left plenty of light. She slowed her pace wanting it dark when she walked Sky into the trailer park. The horse moved so slowly, sometimes staggering, it wasn’t hard to burn daylight. Finny patted his neck and felt the sheen of sweat coating his body. She hoped he wasn’t sick on top of everything else that looked wrong.


    It was sufficiently dark when they arrived at the trailer park. Finny made her way quickly down the road and heaved a sigh of relief when she found the trailer her mom had been trying to rent, empty. She brought Sky quickly around back, opened a chain link fence made to keep in dogs and led him through. After a quick inspection of the fence she was confident enough to let Sky off the lead. Much to her delight the grass hadn’t been cut in forever. It was knee high, giving Sky more than enough to eat throughout the night. Finny found an old trashcan, cleaned it, and filled it with water. Sky came over sniffed the can then took a long drink. She hated leaving Sky in a strange place but she had to get home. He seemed to be taking it well. With all the food, certainly more than he’d had seen in a while, Finny figured he’d be okay. She gave Sky a pat and set off.


    The porch was dark when Finny climbed the stairs and tiptoed into the house. Down the hall she heard the TV. She peeked in the living room and found her mom and stepdad Steve cuddling on the couch. They were engrossed in a movie with the twins snuggled in between them. They looked good together, like the happy family they were. She thought about her dad. He too was remarried with a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. His new wife liked the four of them to dress alike. Not identical clothes but in the same colors and styles. It was enough to make them look like they belonged to each other, which they did, because they were a family who loved each other.
    Careful not to disturb anyone Finny climbed the stairs and went into her bathroom. She flipped on the light and looked in the mirror. Big green eyes on a heart shaped face framed by honey colored hair stared back. Finny grabbed a washcloth and scrubbed her face. A moment later she had a dirt-covered washcloth in her hand and a clean shiny face in the mirror. She studied her reflection looking for the pretty her mom said was there. Finny knew she wasn’t Elsa pretty with her perfect nose and bright blue eyes, but not many girls were. After tossing the washcloth aside Finny picked up one of her unopened bottles of makeup. She didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t really much care either. Her mom’s repeated pleas ran through her head, ‘If I bought you make-up would you use it? You got the Junior Prom and all sorts of social events coming up. If you want a boy to ask you to a dance, wash the dirt off and put make-up on.’
     With a tired sigh Finny put the bottle down and looked once more in the mirror. Never once did Elsa go out without flawless make-up or perfect hair. She wondered at her age if it was normal not to care about make-up and dances. Maybe in time, when she had a healthy horse to ride and was happy, then she’d care.


 

Chapter 2


    Panic shot adrenalin through Joe’s veins letting him run despite the pain. He needed to get far, fast. With no moon the night was jet black, making it near impossible to see but perfect for hiding. Rain poured all day and though it wasn’t raining now Joe was soaking wet. The underbrush and the trees in the forest were dripping water and moving through them was as drenching as the rain itself. Without losing sight of the road he moved as far off the highway as he could. Once certain he was hidden, Joe slumped to the ground and clutched his throbbing knee. He prayed it wasn’t broken. The night wasn’t cold but Joe hugged his jacket closed and said a silent prayer. He wiped his eyes and would have liked to blame his wet face on the rain but he was scared and didn’t know where he was or what to do. Sitting very still, hardly breathing, Joe listened. Nothing but crickets, bullfrogs and other noises from the night. What he didn’t want to hear was the sound of a rough idling, diesel pick-up coming back to find him once it was discovered he was gone. With a deep breath Joe pushed himself back to his feet. He had to get farther away. Pain shot through his thigh in protest. Joe rubbed his leg and searched through the dark mass of trees. Bears and wolves hunted at night, he didn’t intend to be an easy target.


    The underbrush was thick and full of thorns making it impossible to negotiate. If he were to get anywhere he had to take a chance and travel by the road. Mud and a bad leg made getting back up the slope near impossible but Joe made it. Just up ahead was a railroad crossing. Behind him lights were coming but Joe could tell it was a semi, not a pick-up. A loud bell began to clang. A moment later crossing lights lit up the night. Joe ducked down in the tall grass and scanned the area. The long wooden rails made to block the tracks began to descend. The semi with air brakes loudly engaging slowed and eased to a stop at the barrier. Joe saw it was, of all things, a horse trailer. The biggest most fancy one he’d ever seen. Painted on the side was a horse jumping through a large silver spur. It was a sign Joe thought, it had to be. From his hiding place he quickly limped towards the rig. There were multiple storage lockers in the front. If any one of them were open he’d be home free. The ringing stopped, Joe knew the truck would soon move. The first one was locked, he looked over, the gates were lifting, the second door was locked too. The truck powered up. The third handle moved more than the rest but didn’t open. The truck began to roll. Joe grabbed with both hands and yanked. The door flew open and Joe jumped in without a second to spare. He closed the door and found himself in complete darkness. This storage area had no window but Joe didn’t care. The feeling of the truck moving farther and farther away was all he needed.