Fire and Ice Young Adult and New Adult Books

The Horse Rescuers #5

Half a Buck

by Patricia Gilkerson



"Half a Buck" by Patricia Gilkerson Piper wants to ride in her first horse show, so she takes lessons from her dad’s friend, Annie. Piper’s horse keeps going lame, so Annie provides another one. Strange things are happening in Annie’s barn and soon there are more questions than answers: Is Annie a criminal or an innocent victim? Who is threatening Annie and can Piper and the Horse Rescuers figure out a plan to help her? How does that horse keep getting out of his stall? And when will the river stop rising?


 

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Middle Grade / Teens


Chapter One

~ A Freaky Incident~

I didn’t know when I took Nickel out of the barn for a Saturday morning ride that he was feeling jumpy, but he soon let me know. He began dancing and tossing his head right when we got outside. He didn’t know or care that I wanted him to be calm and steady, his usual manner. Nickel is a beautiful horse—he’s half-Arabian, but he looks like he’s all Arabian, with huge eyes, sleek grey coat, curved neck, and narrow muzzle. He fidgeted as I tightened the cinch to the saddle, but I didn’t worry about it. I should have. “Easy boy,” I said. “It’s okay, it’s just me.”

I gently rubbed his soft, but muscular neck. His type of horse looked delicate and fine but was actually wiry and very strong. He blew air out of his nose in my direction and kept his good eye on what I was doing. Restless hooves squished in the mud of the corral as he moved around me, making it hard to get close to the stirrup.

In the past, he’d always been patient and gentle, quiet and steady, in spite of the fact that he was blind in one eye. I decided it must be the wind, blowing in another rainstorm in what was turning out to be a very soggy summer. Windy days sometimes make horses goofy, but I’d ridden him in a thunderstorm a year ago, so I didn’t worry about that.

Whatever the reason, my dad, watching from the doorway to the barn, noticed how jumpy he was.

“Hey Piper!” he called, “Don’t let him act up!”

“He’s never done this before!” I had tried talking softly. What was I supposed to do, sit down and have a little chat with him? This was as close to chatting as I could get. When I rode Dotty, my POA pony, she usually bucked a little, but she was small, and I was used to dealing with her. However, my legs had gotten too long for Dotty, so I worked it out with my best friend Addie that I would ride Nickel. He was supposed to be Addie’s horse—we had rescued him, so Addie would have her own horse to ride—but she was losing interest in riding.

Nickel was young, tall, and held his head high, so it was hard for me to reach. He tossed it around and his feet stepped sideways as I hopped with one foot in the stirrup, trying to get on his back.

“Where’s your helmet?” Dad called, but I was busy with the horse and ignored him. I swung my right leg over Nickel, and he took off walking. I figured things would be okay at that point. We walked around the corral once and it was going fine. I decided to try loping and kicked him a little, but as I did, two things happened at once: the saddle slipped down on his side and Nickel gave a couple of little bucks.

He stopped, but I kept going and landed on my butt in the corral. Luckily, the ground was soft from all the rain we’d had. Unluckily, the whole corral was mucky mud—half mud, half manure. I looked around and saw Nickel take off galloping through the corral gate into the larger horse pasture, kicking and bucking. I slowly hauled myself up off the ground, brushing my muddy hands on my jeans, which were wet with goo.

“Piper, are you okay?” my dad called as he let himself through the barnyard gate into the corral.

“I’m okay,” I said, surprised that my voice shook. We watched Nickel kicking and galloping. The other horses, Dotty the POA pony, and Daisy the quarter horse, whinnied at him and galloped with him.

“I can’t believe it,” Dad said, cursing under his breath and staring at my surging, bucking horse. “It looks like he stepped through the stirrup and it’s caught on his fetlock.”

I watched closely. He really had stepped through a stirrup with a back hoof and couldn’t shake it off his foot. The saddle had slipped under his belly and the whole thing was freaking him out. We had to stop him before he hurt himself.

“When he comes into the corral again, shut the gate so we can catch him. Go stand by it and get ready.”

I ran over to the six-foot steel gate and stood still as the bucking horse, saddle flapping under his belly, came jumping and snorting through it. I slammed it shut before the other two horses could follow. Nickel would have a smaller area to jump around in and would calm down faster by himself. As he swung around and realized the gate was closed, Nickel snorted and stood still for a minute, quivering. Eyes wide, nostrils flared, and wet with sweat, he breathed heavily, watching me walk toward him. The other two whinnied at him from the big pasture, and pranced around, but he ignored them.

“It’s okay. I know it’s scaring you. We’ll get it off you as quick as we can,” I murmured to him, holding a hand out to catch his bridle.

I wasn’t fast enough, because he jumped away from me and bucked some more. I saw that his leg was cut from the metal stirrup, so he was not only frightened, he was also in pain. By now Dad was beside me watching the panicky horse try to limp around in circles, his leg hung up and the saddle flopping by his side.

When he slowed down again, I grabbed for the bridle and held his head still. He pulled back but allowed me to hold him steady; his sweaty sides heaved in and out, his nostrils flared. Dad came up and held the other side.

“Good job, Piper. Hold him now, so I can get his foot out.” But as he stepped close to Nickel’s side, the horse put his ears back and jumped away. I held on as hard as I could. It was possible that Nickel could swing my whole body off the ground.

“I want to do it.”

“Just hold him, honey, and let me get this done.” Dad reached for his foot, but Nickel tried to dance away, which was awkward with his foot hung up.

“Dad! He’s scared and hurt, and he doesn’t really trust men much. Besides, he’s my horse, I should do it. He’s used to me messing with his feet.”

Dad looked at me. “Seriously? Okay, but be careful and if he gets crazy, jump back.” My dad was used to me being pretty independent, but he was always warning me about getting hurt.

Horses can kick hard enough to kill a person, even without meaning to. But he was my horse, mine and Addie’s, and I felt responsible. I took a deep breath, slipped my hand firmly along his flank and down to his foot. He turned his head to watch what I was doing, but he was blind in that eye and couldn’t see what was going on. Would he go nuts again? Good horse that he was, he lifted his foot when I asked by patting it. Thanks to many hoof-cleaning sessions, he was well-trained for people to work on his feet. Ready to jump back if he lunged or kicked, I spoke softly to him, firmly grasped the stirrup and pulled it off his foot. Success! We all sighed, even Nickel, as he set his foot on the ground.

Dad held my horse’s head as I unbuckled the saddle and pulled it to the ground, throwing the saddle blanket on top of it. Poor Nickel was exhausted. He stood with his injured leg lifted and barely touching the ground, breathing heavily and dripping sweat.  His eyes were still wide and white around the edges, but he was beginning to calm down.

“We should switch now. You hold his head, and I’ll check that cut on his leg,” said Dad, handing the bridle to me. My dad was a veterinarian and spent his days looking at horses and cattle, as well as cats and dogs. I knew Nickel was in good hands.

I held his bridle and rubbed his forehead. The sweaty horse smell was strong, but I loved it. I held on tightly as Dad put gentle hands on Nickel’s injured leg. Horses in pain don’t have much tolerance for people messing with them. Sometimes you have to give them something else to think about, like a twitch or clip, tight on their lips, so you can check them out. He held still, like a good boy, but he didn’t like it. His ears were pinned back flat against his head until my dad stood back up. Then he pricked up his ears and looked at Dad with large brown eyes. His blind eye looked the same as his good eye and they made my heart melt. I hugged his neck.

“I won’t have to sew it, luckily it’s not deep. But we should put some antibiotics on it and wrap it up after he calms down some more.”

“Okay,” I said with relief that it was all over now. Nickel grew calmer, so I hugged his sweaty neck again and kissed his nose.

“Do you know what happened?”

“I...uh...didn’t have the saddle girth tight enough.” I was feeling stupid as I realized it was mostly my fault. “But I don’t know why he was so jumpy today.”

“Probably the wind. Remember to pull that girth as tight as you can manage. You won’t hurt him.”

Dad had told me that many, many times and I knew to pull it tight and then pull again. Sometimes horses held their breath, so the girth wouldn’t be as tight as you needed it to be while riding. If you slap their bellies, they will let the air back out. They are very good at figuring out how to make life easier for themselves, so you have to know their tricks.

“If you had told me that happened,” said Dad, “I wouldn’t have believed it. I’ve been practicing a long time and I’ve never seen that. It must be his little Arabian foot was exactly the right size to fit through the stirrup. But why weren’t you wearing your helmet?” Dad glared at me until I answered.

“I don’t know...I just...it bothers me.” More than that, it smashed my hair down and made it sweaty, not a look I wanted my boyfriend Jeff to see. But I didn’t want to admit that to Dad.

“You. Have got. To wear. Your helmet.”

I didn’t say anything. If I didn’t keep arguing, he would forget about it. Maybe.

Dad walked back to the white veterinary body set into the bed of his dark green Ford pickup to get supplies. I spent the next few minutes with Nickel in his stall, brushing him and telling him what a good boy he was. I thought about how lucky I was to have such a sweet horse. He nosed at my jeans, looking for treats, which I gave him. As he continued to calm down, I did too, and watched as he began nibbling hay. Dad came back into the barn and with gentle hands, spread ointment on the cut, then wrapped it. He showed me how to wrap it, so it stayed on, but was not too tight on my horse’s leg. He gave me the tube and a package of the wrap, told me to change it every day and let him know him if the wound seemed hot or irritated. We washed our hands in the barn sink and walked out into the warm, windy day.

“How long does it need to be covered?”

“I’ll check him in a couple days. If it’s healing well, you can probably leave the wrap off then. I wouldn’t ride him for a week till that’s well-healed. You can ride Dotty for a while.”

“I know, but I’m getting too tall for her.”

“Please remember to tighten the cinch.”

Gee, thanks, Dad. I guess I’ll remember now. I got more sarcastic as I got older.

Miss Julie Applegate came out on the porch of her beautiful old house and waved at us before we could get in the truck to leave. She yelled at us to come and have some cookies. We kept the horses on her farm with her blessing. She was an old friend of my family and the one who helped me and Addie rescue Dotty. We added Nickel later when we saved him from going to the slaughterhouse.

I looked around for Jeff, but then I heard guitar music from the upstairs of Miss Julie’s house and knew where he was. He lived in Miss Julie’s house, doing odd jobs for her that she couldn’t manage any more. It’s a long story, but it’s a good arrangement for them both. She became Jeff’s legal guardian last year until he turned eighteen, but she said he could live there as long as he needs or wants to. We started hanging out together and he’s a great guy. He was going away to college at the end of the summer, but we were both planning that he would come back some weekends.

“Well, Piper, did you have a rodeo?” asked Miss Julie. That’s what we called it when something exciting happened with the horses.

“Did we ever!” chimed in Dad. He grabbed one of Miss Julie’s chocolate chip cookies, the best ones in the world, and collapsed on the porch. I went into her downstairs bathroom to change clothes. I always kept a change of clothes there for situations like this one. I was quick, and Dad was in the middle of telling Miss J about the whole fiasco when I went back outside.

“I just saw the very end when you were getting the saddle off Nickel. Did he really have his hoof caught in the stirrup? I can see that Piper’s okay, but was he hurt?” Miss Julie sat down in her rocker and leaned in.

I sat on the step petting her Sheltie, Honey, and told her all about what had happened.  Dad added his viewpoint occasionally.

“But what I don’t understand,” Miss Julie said, “is why did Nickel do that? Why get spooky all of a sudden?”

“Well,” Dad said, “he didn’t do it all at once. I noticed he was kind of hyper the whole time Piper was dealing with him. But first, it was a windy day. Horses are jumpier on windy days. Second, he’s half-Arabian, so he’s ...ah… more spirited than some horses.”

“I know you mean he’s dingy, and that’s a terrible thing to say.” I had to defend my horse. “Nickel has always been sweet, gentle and calm! That’s why we got him for Addie to ride! Remember when I rode him five miles in a thunderstorm?”

“Doesn’t matter. Any horse has that potential in them. That’s why you never, never stand right in front of them. You don’t surprise them, and you don’t wrap reins around your hands. AND you wear your helmet.” I rolled my eyes because Dad never missed an opportunity to give me that lecture and I had heard it many times.

“Oh, Piper,” Miss Julie said, “I’m so glad you didn’t get hurt.” Miss J is a good friend and kinder than anyone I know.

“Yeah, I just have a few bruises. I know I was lucky.”

Miss Julie looked at me with her bright blue eyes and a smile. “You know, almost every time horse people get together, they start talking about injuries and weird things that happen riding. Every one of them has some kind of scar to show off. And now you have a story to tell, instead of a scar.”

“I’m gonna run upstairs and tell it to Jeff,” I said, patting Honey as I got up.

“Hey Piper,” Dad said, stopping me at the door, “maybe it’s time you finally agree to take riding lessons.” This was an on-going argument between me and Dad. I didn’t think I needed them, but he kept nagging about it. “Think about it, okay?”

I rolled my eyes again as I went upstairs.