WONDER HORSE BOOK ONE
By: Victoria Hardesty and Nancy Perez
Writers of Action and Adventure with Arabian Horses
Connor McGrew and his assistant Darlene had a busy morning the Saturday after the parade. They did pregnancy checks on a small group of Angus beef cattle for a farmer, did horse vaccinations for another client, and ended up with three young horses to castrate for a third. All of the work was dirty, sweaty, and difficult. Cows are unpredictable and don’t appreciate the invasion of privacy at all. Vaccinations were the most straightforward job they had to do, and none of the horses were especially cooperative. After doing their work at each ranch, Connor and Darlene had to change scrubs after hosing off as much as possible.
By the time they got to the last ranch for the day, the sun was almost at its highest point. Shade was nowhere to be found in the pasture where Connor sedated the young horses so he could do the surgery. Darlene stood over him, holding up the rear leg of each horse and handing him tools as he worked. They only got a bit of relief from the bright spring sunshine while they watched the young horses, to be sure they woke up and didn’t hurt themselves getting back on their feet.
As with every call they made that week, the topic of conversation rolled around to the horse missing from the parade in San Juan Capistrano. Darlene and Connor spent their time at the parade with Walter and Caroline Howard and liked them, so their feelings about the theft were much more personal. The fact the horse had not been spotted, or no ransom demands had been made to the Howards worried them all. The area around Ramona, where Connor’s veterinary practice was located, had suffered a few missing horses in recent memory. Those horses simply vanished as well. All the ranchers were nervous about it.
When the last of the three newly castrated young horses got to his feet, Connor checked his watch. “I just about have time to get to the soccer field and watch the last of my son’s game. Do you mind if I just drop you off at the office and head on over there?” he asked Darlene.
“Oh, no. You go ahead.”
“I’ll drop off the truck there too. Maybe you and I can get together sometime tomorrow morning and clean things up and get it restocked. The other vet is taking all the emergency calls for the rest of the weekend. I want to spend it with my family.”
“All I have is a stack of laundry waiting,” Darlene said as she climbed back into the truck.
One of the reasons Connor picked the office he rented was it came equipped with a shower. After Connor dropped her off, she decided to use the shower before getting into her car and dragging all the stinking debris from the morning work into it. She still had another set of scrubs to change into.
Refreshed from a quick shower, Darlene decided to stop at the local watering hole for a cold drink before going home. The Drop Inn was a friendly local hangout, and she recognized most of the people who stopped in, at least by the first name. After placing her order, she noticed Linda sitting at the end of the bar and smiled at her. Linda picked up her drink and sat down next to her.
“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?” Linda asked.
“Just laundry,” quipped Darlene as she took a sip.
“How would you like to go with me to a birthday party for a handsome guy I met here a couple of months ago? He’s single, and he’s adorable?”
Darlene pondered that for a couple of minutes while Linda offered up more and more reasons why she should accompany her.
“Okay. Guess I don’t have anything better to do.” She acquiesced.
“Great. Let’s take my car. You can leave yours here. We don’t need two cars.”
Darlene locked her car and climbed into the passenger seat of Linda’s car. Linda drove down the main road in town into the countryside. About a half-mile outside of town, she turned down a road Darlene had never noticed before. The road was paved just a short distance and then became an unpaved and bumpy track through the woods. Linda drove fast. Several bumps would have sent Darlene airborne had she not buckled her seat belt. She began getting an awful feeling just a little way down the road.
Linda was excited. Parties were what she lived for. She had a boring job in a small town that offered almost no nightlife. She found herself a designated driver in Darlene. Everyone who knew Darlene even slightly knew she was a bit straight-laced, didn’t drink much and didn’t do anything else either. If this party got going the way Linda hoped, she would need that designated driver to get herself home later.
Six miles on a barely marked dirt road took forever! Linda continued driving much faster than Darlene liked. She became more and more alarmed as they bounced and jounced along. Darlene’s “this is not going to end well” feeling got stronger.
“Just exactly where is this party anyway?” she asked Linda in concern.
“Oh, we’re almost there,” Linda grinned and gunned the engine a little harder. She almost missed the driveway, and the car went up on two wheels making a sharp turn suddenly. Darlene gasped and hung on. Linda slowed as she came to a clearing in the oak trees. There were lots of cars parked in front of an old falling-down cabin.
Getting out of the passenger side of Linda’s car, Darlene looked around. Besides the cars parked willy-nilly everywhere, lots of people were milling around. One look was all it took for her to know this was not her kind of party at all. These were not her kind of people. She reached into her purse and found her cell phone missing. She remembered she left it in her car parked in front of the Drop Inn. Her heart sunk. She was stuck here! It was too far to walk back to town. She couldn’t call anyone else for a ride. Oh, what had she gotten herself into?
“Come on, I’ll introduce you to the hosts and the birthday boy,” Linda encouraged, grabbing Darlene’s arm and escorting her to the porch of the cabin. Several men were standing talking as they approached.
Darlene was a pretty woman with flawless skin and almost no makeup. Her glossy brown hair was pulled into a pony tail that hung nearly to her waist. Her figure showed through the scrubs with little animals printed on them. She stood out in this crowd. Darlene noticed a couple of men leering at her as the two women walked to the porch. “Keep your mouth shut and try to be invisible,” she admonished herself.
Darlene endured the introductions and accepted a coke from the birthday boy, Danny Hix. Linda spotted some other friends and wandered over to talk to them. Darlene looked around and saw an old barn a bit away from the cabin with a couple of oak trees beside it. That offered some shade and distance from the other partygoers. She headed off and settled herself at the base of one tree to keep an eye out for Linda, hoping she would be ready to get out of there soon.
Every few minutes Calvin Hix would escort a couple of people into the barn. They would be inside with the doors shut for a few minutes and wander out again. Once or twice she saw Calvin stuffing what looked like a wad of cash into the pocket of his jeans as he followed his guests back to the cabin area. “Holy Cow,” she thought. “There must be something bad going on in there.”
She looked at the cars parked around. They were, for the most part, what she and her friends would call “junkers.” She also had time to observe the partygoers. She saw lots of messy clothes and hair, bad teeth, tattoos, and body piercings. She heard lots of rough language. These people were not the kind she associated with. She couldn’t wait to get out of this place.
After a while, Darlene noticed the one called Danny walking toward her. She sat very still, hoping he wouldn’t notice her at all. Unfortunately, he did. He sat down beside her and leaned his back against the tree. “Darlene, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Whatcha doing over here all by yourself”
“Just people watching. I had a headache when I got off work. I just needed a few minutes to decompress,” she answered.
“Hey, I know what you mean,” he said. “I had a bad headache when I woke up this morning.” Danny laughed to himself. That’s when Danny started talking. Darlene wouldn’t have been able to squeeze a word in if she tried, so she sat there and listened incredulously.
Danny talked about his parents being in jail and he and his brother in foster care. He talked about his first contact with “the law,” as he called it. He talked about what he and Calvin did to get the money for this party. He talked about the little girl in the hospital trying to chase them off. He talked about the horse they stole. He talked about hearing the news on the radio. He talked about taking the horse to an old prospector in the mountains. He talked about the value of the gold he paid them for the horse. He talked and talked and talked. He finally ran down like a wind-up toy and just sat there for a few minutes. He saw someone he wanted to talk to in the distance and just got up and left Darlene sitting there in shock.
A few minutes later, gunshots rang out. Darlene jerked to attention and spotted several men on the cabin porch using a handgun to shoot at branches of the trees down the driveway. Either the men were impaired by something or horrible shots because they missed everything they aimed at. Every time someone missed, the group laughed like fools. One wild shot blew out the windshield of a car. Either the owner was the shooter at the time, or just didn’t notice. Calvin came out of the cabin with a long rifle and passed that gun around to his buddies. None of them did any better with the rifle than they did with the handgun.
As dry as everything was in that area with the drought, Darlene was scared to death one of them would miss and set off a spark that could burn the whole area down around them. They were so far back in the woods she wondered how long it would take for the fire department to get a call on fire out here. She was relieved when the shooting stopped.
Just before dark, Linda came staggering over to Darlene’s tree and asked if Darlene would drive her back to the Drop Inn. Darlene didn’t have to be asked twice. She hustled Linda over to her car and helped her buckle into the passenger seat. She grabbed Linda’s key and fired up the engine, backing out of the driveway as quickly as possible. She turned the car down the dirt road, hoping she could remember the way back to town.
Darlene got to the paved road just as dusk fell. She turned the car toward town and drove straight to the Drop Inn. Linda was asleep. Darlene took the car keys to the bartender. “You can try bringing her a hot cup of coffee or call her a cab. I’m going home.”
Darlene picked up her cell phone after buckling her seat belt. Low battery! She’d forgotten to plug it in. She had just enough battery to make one call. As she pulled out of the Drop Inn parking lot, she dialed the number.