La Duquesa – Wonder Horse Book Two
By Victoria Hardesty and Nancy Perez
Mike Hartley and Ginny, his wife of 34 years, sat down to breakfast Sunday morning early. Mike had already made the rounds of their seventy-acre ranch, checking to be sure all horses, cows, dogs, and cats were standing upright on four legs as his crew fed, watered, and mucked stalls. He generally walked the ranch each morning, but he took one of the electric carts this day so he’d be done quicker. He wanted to do something special this day.
Ginny had only been home a couple of weeks. She spent several weeks at a friend’s ranch in San Juan Capistrano while Walter and Caroline Howard stayed with their daughter, Becky, who was in a coma in Mission Hospital. Ginny and her friend, Sharon O’Neal, stayed at the Howard’s place and cared for their Arabian horse herd. Once Becky was out of the woods and on her way to recovery, Ginny came home. Since then, she played catch up on the things only she did at the ranch. Mike wanted to spend some quiet time alone with her.
“What would you say to going for a ride with me today?” he asked her after taking a sip of his coffee. “Just you and me. I have a couple of horses in training that need to put some trail miles on, and you need a break.”
“We haven’t done that in a long time,” Ginny answered. “That sounds wonderful to me.”
Brody, their 14- year- old nephew, shuffled into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal in time to hear the conversation. “Yeah, Aunt Gin, you two need to get out of here. Uncle Mike, you don’t have any clients on your schedule until two o’clock this afternoon. Mr. Garcia is coming to see his horse. If you’re not back, I can handle that for you.”
“Then it’s a done deal!” Mike grinned at Ginny. “Go get your boots on, and I’ll start tacking up the horses. Meet you in the barn.”
A short while later, the two were mounted and headed out the front gate. Mike suggested they take the horses south of the ranch into the hills. Clyde, their seven-year-old Labrador retriever, wandered along beside them, occasionally checking out interesting smells along the way. They relaxed and talked about many things. They climbed in elevation toward the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains as they went along.
A quarter of a mile before they reached the last low hill on their route, the hair along Clyde’s spine stood erect. He heard something they didn’t, and it bothered him. He walked a little faster out in front of them. Just before reaching the summit of the hill, Clyde froze, hackles raised, and his tail stopped wagging. He crouched, sniffing the air.
“What’s bothering Clyde?” Ginny asked. Then they heard a horse screaming and thrashing somewhere beyond the rise. They also heard cursing and a sound like a cracking whip. Clyde crouched low, growling deep in his throat. The whip cracked again, and Clyde launched himself up the road. His big paws threw dirt and gravel behind him as he flew over the rise.
Mike and Ginny looked at each other in surprise. “That’s not like Clyde at all!” Mike muttered. “We’d better go see what he’s up to.”
They both cued their horses from a slow walk into a canter. Gravel and dust sprayed behind the horses hooves. At the top of the rise, they halted.
“Do you see anything?” Ginny asked.
“Sounds like its coming from the left and not too far. I hate horse abuse. Let’s go check this out!” Mike said grimly, his relaxed smile gone.
Ahead of them, Clyde’s low growl changed to furious barking. Whoever he was barking at began cursing loudly. The whip cracked again and again.
Mike and Ginny picked their way around a rocky outcropping covered with low Juniper trees and scrub. Out in the open again, they were looking down into a small valley they’d never seen before. A narrow dirt track just wide enough for a vehicle led to a tiny cabin. Alongside the cabin was a pipe corral with a two-sided shelter. The scene was shocking. The ground inside the corral appeared to be at least a foot deep in mud. The horse inside was throwing itself into the corral panels to escape. The man was cracking the whip to keep Clyde away from him. The normally mild-mannered, hundred-pound black dog continued charging the man barking furiously. The man cursing Clyde appeared intoxicated. The ground around the cabin was littered with broken whiskey bottles, beer cans, and trash. The man didn’t notice the riders at first.
“Clyde! Come!” shouted Mike. Clyde turned and saw Mike and Ginny. He reluctantly walked back and sat down beside Mike’s horse. A deep growl resonated in his throat as he stared at the hateful man.
Mike thought before speaking. He and his wife were probably on private property and were out in the middle of nowhere. The man looked intoxicated and obviously violent. He didn’t want to escalate the situation.
“Hey! You having trouble with that horse?” Mike asked the man when he got close enough to be heard. Ginny was right beside him glaring at the man.
“It’s none of your business!” the man shouted. “You’re on private property. Turn around and go.”
“Well, I just thought I could give you a hand if you’re having trouble with the horse. I’m a pretty good horse trainer,” Mike smiled stiffly.
Ginny stared at the horse. It was a mare. She could tell it was an Arabian. But the rest she could see broke her heart. Somewhere under all that mud was a pretty face. The horse looked nearly dead of starvation. Her backbone protruded. Her hipbones and shoulder bones looked sharp enough to tear the skin. Every rib was exposed along her sides. She was covered in mud and feces. Whip welts showed on her neck, chest, sides, back, and hips. Ginny couldn’t tell what color she was. During the exchange with Mike, the man stood holding the whip low. The horse was standing in mud above her pasterns, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.
“You know, I’ve got a soft spot for those Arabian horses,” Ginny began. “Why don’t you let us buy her? You get cash money, and you don’t have to bother feeding her anymore.” Ginny just happened to have five hundred dollars cash in her pocket. She planned a trip to the feed store for supplies later that day and had forgotten to leave the money at home before their ride.
The man’s ears perked up at the mention of cash. “How much?”
“Well, looks like we’re going to have to put quite a bit into her to turn her around, so how about two hundred fifty? Or, if you have papers on her, we can make that five hundred.”
“I got papers. Five hundred sounds good. Get your money, and you got a horse!” The man dropped his whip into the mud and stalked off toward the porch on the front of the cabin.
“I got it right here and now,” Ginny told him. She handed her reins to Mike and dismounted her horse. She pulled a wad of cash from her jeans pocket as she strode toward the cabin porch. Standing in front of the man, she pulled bills out and counted them into his hand.
“Wait a sec,” he told her and walked into the cabin. He returned a few minutes later with registration papers. He handed them to Ginny. “She’s your problem now!” he turned on his heel, walked back inside the cabin, and slammed the front door.
Ginny tucked the papers in her hip pocket and walked back to Mike and the two horses. “I almost forgot I had the feed money in my pocket.” She smiled at him. “Can you pony my horse back to the ranch and come back here with the truck and trailer? I really don’t want to leave her alone with him again. I’d rather stay and try to get a halter on her and see if I can’t calm her down before we try to load her. I’ll keep Clyde with me, just in case.”
“You are such an old softy!” Mike said. “I’m not sure about leaving you alone with him, though. He was handy with that whip!”
“I was standing a few feet from him when I paid him. I thought I was going to get drunk on his fumes. I don’t think you have to worry about me being alone with him. I’m pretty sure he’s already sleeping it off in there. Besides, I’ll keep Clyde with me for protection,” Ginny smiled up at him while she stooped and scratched Clyde behind his ears.
“Okay. I’ll grab one of the guys to help us in case we need it. See you in a few minutes,” Mike said as he turned and led Ginny’s horse back to the road and disappeared over the top of the rise.
Ginny walked back to the corral, careful not to step on broken glass. She looked around behind the cabin and found a halter with a lead rope attached laying in the muck. She also found a hose and cleaned them off as well as she could. She walked over to the corral and leaned on the top rail watching the mare. Clyde stayed right beside her.
The horse was still trembling but not as bad as before. She turned her head to look at Ginny a couple of times, looking away quickly as though she was ready to bolt at the slightest movement.
Ginny began to talk to her in low soothing tones. The more she talked, the less the horse trembled. Clyde whined softy. The horse seemed more and more curious about Ginny and the dog and less and less afraid of them. Finally, Ginny rolled up the legs of her jeans, opened the gate to the corral, and took a step inside. She sank into the muck. The horse flinched at the sound of the gate opening but stood still. Ginny walked toward the horse slowly while she continued talking to her. The horse stopped trembling by the time Ginny got close enough to touch her shoulder. Ginny talked and scratched her withers gently through the mud. Ginny was able to slip her halter on and get it buckled.
“Now for the hard part,” Ginny told the horse. “We have to get us both out of this crud and onto dry land. So let’s take this one step at a time, okay?” Ginny took the shortest route to the gate, directly through the middle of the corral. As she stepped into the goo near the middle, her foot sank deep enough for the muck to slop over her boot tops and down into her boots. She plowed on, struggling like the mare in the sucking mud. Ginny succeeded in getting the horse outside her corral just as Mike and his helper arrived with the truck and trailer. Mike opened the trailer’s back door while Ginny walked the mare toward it, being careful of the broken glass. Clyde stayed right by her side. Neither Mike nor Ginny knew what to expect from the horse when she saw the horse trailer. They were amazed when the horse spied a bag of fresh hay and walked in as if she’d been hauled in that trailer every day. Mike followed the horse inside, tied her lead rope to the tie ring, hopped back outside, and closed the door.
“Well, that was sure easy!” Mike said. “Guess we didn’t need the extra help after all.”
“Well, I sure need some,” Ginny said as she sat on the trailer fender. “These boots are goner’s and my socks too. Help me pull them off, will you? I don’t want this all over the inside of the truck.”
Mike grabbed her boots and pulled them off, tossing them in the truck bed. Then he picked his wife up and set her on the truck seat so she wouldn’t get broken glass in her bare feet. Mike’s helper climbed into the back seat with Clyde.
Ginny looked straight through the windshield, holding back tears. “Let’s get out of here,” she said to Mike. He started the truck and drove back to the ranch, dropping Ginny off at the house to get some boots. Then he pulled the trailer in front of the main barn.
Brody met him at the truck and helped Mike unload the mare. He’d prepared a stall for her when Mike left to pick her up. “She’s sure a mess, Uncle Mike,” Brody said when he got a good look at her. “She needs some groceries, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, and that’s probably not all she needs,” Uncle Mike told him. Brody already knew the story about how they found the horse. Mike told him when he picked up the trailer. “My guess is we’ll need to get Doc Martin out here in the morning to look her over and give us advice on how to take care of her and bring her back.”
Aunt Ginny walked through the barn toward them with Clyde at her heels. “How was she at unloading?”
“Same as she was at loading,” Uncle Mike told her. “I’d say she’s been hauled a few times before. She’s good on the lead too. Someone’s done some work with her, just can’t figure out how she ended up where she was when we found her.”
Ginny pulled her registration papers out of her back pocket and opened them up. “Wow! She’s a daughter of Spanish Lace. I remember her showing maybe ten years ago. She was a lovely deep chestnut with four white stockings, a pretty blaze, and an almost platinum blonde mane and tail. What a looker. This mare is La Duquesa. She is only four years old herself, and she would have sold for a pretty penny with her breeding alone. I’d like to know how that old drunk got his hands on her and why he abused and starved her. Sometimes I wish these guys could talk and tell us their story, but then again, sometimes I’d rather not know.”
“What do you want me to feed her, Aunt Ginny,” Brody asked.
“Looking at her, she’s missed a few too many meals. Let’s get her started on a bucket of soaked pellets and beet pulp with about half a can of bran mixed in. We need to make several small meals for her for a while. We’ll talk with Doc Martin in the morning about it. Don’t give her any hay until we talk with him.”
Brody walked off to get a bucket ready for the mare while Mike and Ginny stood looking at her. La Duquesa was standing at the back of the stall with her head in the corner. She was trembling again but not as bad as before. She looked like she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Brody brought back her bucket, mixed and ready, and showed it to Aunt Ginny before dumping it in the feeder. He closed the feeder door and stood in the middle of the barn aisle beside his aunt and uncle, watching the mare. She didn’t move. She showed no interest in the feed at all.
“Let’s give her some privacy, guys,” Aunt Ginny finally said as she walked to the barn entrance. “Maybe we need to give her some time.”
Everyone but Clyde left the barn heading for the house. Clyde remained sitting in the middle of the barn aisle looking at the horse. When all was quiet, he stood. “You know you are safe here, don’t you?”
“Are you sure? I thought I was safe before, and I wasn’t after all,” the mare whispered.
“Tell me about it,” Clyde answered.
“I remember being with my mommy on a beautiful ranch with trees and grass. There were lots of mares and babies, and I had friends to play with. One day a couple showed up with a horse trailer. I was shoved inside without my mommy and driven for a long time until we finally stopped. The couple pulled me out of the trailer. I was so scared and couldn’t see my mommy,” the mare broke down. It took her a minute to regain her composure. “I always felt safe with my mommy.”
“What happened then?” Clyde whined softly.
“The people weren’t very nice to me. They pulled and shoved me until they got me into a paddock next to one filled with goats. They left food and water for me and left me there all alone. I missed my mommy so much.”
“I didn’t mean to make you sad. Please have something to eat. You will not be sad here. These people are wonderful and very kind to all the animals. Aunt Ginny especially loves her horses. We’ll talk more later. Please eat. You need it to get better.” Clyde begged her, wagging his tail.
La Duquesa slowly turned and walked to the feeder, and began eating. As soon as Clyde was sure she would eat all that was in her feeder, he left the barn and went to join Brody.