Horse Town

A Soquili County Mystery

Joanne Lowery

Published by Horse Town Press

 

horsetownpress.com

 

Front Cover: eastern light photography/Shutterstock.com

Back Cover Art: Kjpargeter/Shutterstock.com

 

copyright  2014 Joanne Lowery

All rights reserved.

 

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PROLOGUE: LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

 

 Eleven-year-old Fiona McInnish had some grown up choices to make. The voices in her head (Mom, Dad, Jesus and all of her popular friends) were never in accord as to her day-to-day comportment. The resulting balancing act was not helped by the fact that her father and mother were the principal and guidance counselor at her school. It often happened that Fiona accidentally knew things about the other students that she should not have known. The things she’d found out about the new girl in her class worried her. Samantha Carmichael was also eleven years old. Her IQ and test scores were far above average but she’d never been to school with other children. In fact, their homeroom teacher was overheard (by Fiona, who had been minding her own business inside the faculty restroom) saying that the child had been “raised by wolves”. The comment had not been well received by Fiona’s parents who counseled the teacher but gave Fiona a pass on the eavesdropping.

 

      Despite the fact that this new girl had a decidedly aloof attitude, Fiona couldn’t help being drawn to her and was determined to protect her whether the girl wanted her help or not. Trouble was coming and the direction was predictable. Fiona’s circle of friends had been a clique since they were old enough to put on frilly dresses and twirl their first batons. These privileged little girls usually got exactly what they wanted and now they wanted to take control of Samantha’s so called social life and make sure it was not pleasant.

It had not started that way. Petite Samantha Carmichael was surprisingly quick witted for “a homeless orphan” and had an equally swift tongue. She also possessed a fragile feminine beauty on the outside that camouflaged an unshakable self-assurance on the inside. All of these qualities combined to intimidate Fiona’s friends. Despite their initial jealousy, the elite group of pre-teen princesses deemed it wise to include Samantha in their group. Even eleven-year-old girls, (especially eleven-year-old Southern girls), know it’s better to have someone like that on your side than against you.

 

     Forcing her into their fold involved first exercising their own brand of intimidation. They started by showing disdain for the girl’s independent sense of style: denim jeans, cotton button-down long-sleeved shirt, outlandish belt buckle and cowboy boots. All this was topped off by a ridiculously fringed suede jacket with some type of rodeo logo emblazoned across the back yoke. No effort was spared in getting their cruel but necessary point across…she was so wrong to think she could gain popularity in that costume. She’d have to change if she wanted to fit in and the plan was to put her in her place then offer their friendship.

Mary Catherine, who was considered the brains of the operation when Fiona was not around, pulled Samantha aside and softly explained to her how everyone was laughing at her behind her back and that it “hurt their hearts” to see her treated like that. She then offered to loan Samantha some cute skirts and tops and teach her how to set and comb her hair into a perky ponytail. Not waiting for a reply, the other girls made a circle around Samantha, all swelling with benevolence and pride due to Mary Catherine’s magnanimous gesture. They backed Mary Catherine up by jutting their little chins, throwing their ponytails back over their shoulders and chattering at her all at the same time. The plan was to give her a “make-over” and allow her to sit on the Junior Cheerleader Squad’s bench holding their pom-poms at the very next peewee football game.

 

     The budding cheerleaders in the squad, minus Fiona who had judiciously been left out of this scheme, were not prepared for Samantha’s response. The girl in the funny clothes spun on her cowboy booted heels and let out the most unlady-like snort. This was followed by a few choice words she’d picked up from the bull riders who, in her past life, had watched over her while her mother performed. She realized too late that it was a bit much but made no apologies before walking away to the library to read Walter Farley books until morning recess was over.

The pissed off squad of eleven-year-olds took a new vote and immediately reconsidered their position. An outsider with looks, a mind of her own and a smart mouth? What was not to hate? Meanwhile, Fiona’s sixth sense for trouble kicked into gear. She had a foreboding that on this day she would be forced to choose: keep her circle of friends or protect the new kid…the kid who had no desire, and possibly no ability, to fit in.

 

     Fiona spent her lunch period talking with her dad. After lunch the other girls had come back from the playground wet, wild-eyed and giddy. They avoided looking at Fiona, which pretty much confirmed her suspicions. Fiona got a bathroom pass but instead grabbed an umbrella and headed outside. She found Samantha on the playground hiding under the slide in the rain. She was crying and her long silver-brown hair was lying in roughly scissored clumps all around her…along with most of the fringe from her jacket. She had been trying to muffle her sobs so no one would find her. Despite the look of stone cold hatred that came over the girl’s face, Fiona’s heart broke at the sight of her. She couldn’t resist trying to give her a hug but the girl fought her off with a strength that took Fiona by surprise. Fiona backed away, gave her some space and then watched her cry until the rage leaked out of the girl and she went limp. She sat still for a few minutes then turned back to Fiona and for the first time looked like what she was: an eleven-year-old orphan. In a barely audible voice she spoke to Fiona.

“Those girls said my Mom was rodeo trash.”

 

      After a long pause her voice came back stronger.

 “She wasn’t…everybody loved her and she loved me but she’s gone and I can’t go home again and those people they put me with don’t even like me. I wish I had died with my mom”.

Then she broke into sobs again and reached out to Fiona who rocked her and hugged her and told her not to worry, it would be all right.

 

      And it was. From that day forward, Samantha was under Fiona’s wings and even at eleven years old, Fiona had a wingspan like a double rainbow after an April shower. Fiona’s dad, being the wise man that he was, did what his only child asked him to do. Strings were pulled and Samantha’s foster care “re-assignment” was expedited. She spent that very night in the home of her new family who would treat her like their second daughter and sister for the remainder of their lives on earth.

 

 

 

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1 SOQUILI COUNTY

 

 Sam and Fiona’s story takes back up decades later in a Soquili County town many miles further into the Deep South. Soquili County, a university town, just so happens to provide refuge for an inordinately large population of “horse people”. Soquili is pronounced “sew kwi lee” and means “horse” or “burden bearer” in the Cherokee language.

 

      Sheriff Jubal Trowbridge wanted to believe that growing the Volunteer Mounted Posse was worth the aggravation. But every time a hiker or trail rider got into trouble in the Soquili Forest, he was not convinced that a volunteer posse was the ideal solution. The organization was growing in popularity and it fell on Jubal to guarantee that the volunteers all got into the forest and back out alive after every search and rescue. The whole proposition was “fraught with pitfalls” as his good friend Mary Walker McInnish would say. On the other hand, there were advantages to allowing the citizens to join forces with the Soquili County Sheriff’s Department. Morale was one. This town loved nothing better than a no holds barred rescue mission on horseback. Everybody and their dog usually showed up and stayed to see it through.

 

     The volunteers also saved the taxpayer’s money for overtime pay and wear and tear on the Sheriff’s staff. Some of the volunteers even maintained professional tracking hounds. The department was saved the expense of maintaining their own pack and the tracker’s payback was pride in their dogs, bragging rights and the gratitude of those who were rescued. Pretty much a win-win, like so much of the volunteer posse.

The downside was mostly the balancing act it took to keep everybody well trained, safe and in the communications loop. Jubal needed help and had his eye out for talent that could not only ride out but also organize and lead volunteers.

 

     He sat thinking over the events of the last several days. Annual applications and background checks on the new candidates seeking certification status for the Sheriff’s Posse had been processed earlier in the year. Those who passed had been brought into the Soquili County Equestrian Training Facility for two days of orientation on Friday and Saturday. With only eight new applicants passing the entrance guidelines: healthy, willing and able riders with no criminal record, this should not have been such a big ass deal. But when you factored in the peanut gallery of gawkers and concerned citizen volunteers putting in their two cent’s worth, the challenge to Jubal’s diplomatic skills ratcheted. His dubious sidekicks and unofficial “deputy dawgs”, Chigger and Sqush, were a blessing and a curse. They could always be counted on to defuse tensions with their charm and buffoonery. But it was their ability to talk anybody into anything that had gotten Jubal to go along with their idea of crowdsourcing the posse in the first place.

 

     Immediately after reviewing the arena full of athletic female candidates, Chigger and Sqush high tailed it to the men’s room followed by the membership of the previously mentioned peanut gallery. Loud guffaws, hoots and somewhat garbled rap tempoed singing ensued. The men’s room was not far from the bleacher section that surrounded the commercial sized indoor arena. As the singing picked up steam, Jubal could just make out the words to an impromptu ditty. It was obviously dedicated to the new female recruits:

 

      “Hell raisin...”

“...boomp boppa boomp boppa”

“Fox chasin...”

 

     “...boppa yow yow”

“Barrel blazin...”

 

     “...boogidy boogidy boogidyup”

“Tank topping...”

   “...uh huh uh huh”

 

     The words to the singing got louder and unmistakable clearer:

 

     “Boobie poppin...”

“...uhuhhh..uhuhh”

 

     “Cowboy boppin...”

“...whut?...whut?”

 

     Chigger was clearly the lead vocalist while Sqush provided chorus and simulated turntable spinning background sound effects. Their entourage of cowboy booted bachelors and various and sundry reprobates provided the bonus snorts and salacious laughter. At this point the Sheriff stopped in the middle of the arena and glared in the general direction of the men’s room. Picking up on Jubal’s displeasure, his overzealous dispatcher and self-proclaimed “First Assistant”, Marge, grabbed the extra pair of boots Jubal had left outside the arena railing and chucked them at the wall beside the men’s room door. Despite Marge having very short arms, the force behind the pitch created a noise not unlike a lightning crack against the dry wood. Most of horses in the arena assumed the lightning had struck their tails and spun off into a variety of electrified pirouettes, levades and “airs above the ground”. These were just the Quarter Horses. A couple of thoroughbreds and at least one warmblood went into PRCA approved bucking fits. When the farts died down, Jubal noted with encouragement that none of the female riders had lost their seats or seemed particularly shaken. Yeah, he could definitely work with that.

 

      Jubal gave Marge a face palm to which she mouthed “my bad” while conveying an “oops” gesture with her short arms and 4’2”, 140lb. frame. After the point of boots to wall impact, the hoots died down and immediately turned into man giggles and sheepish mutterings as Marge’s short legs and size 4 feet quickly closed the gap between the arena and the source of the disruption. She burst into the men’s room, hands on hips and hit the gang of grown men with a steely-eyed look of utter disgust. Then she double time marched the offenders out to seats in the bleachers where another scorching look rendered them shame faced and silent. Marge fist bumped her left palm and smugly returned ringside in case Jubal needed further assistance.

 

     After a relatively long period of time…at least two full minutes…the hoots, wolf whistles and rebel yells resumed from the bleachers but the women being complimented were still too psyched from the previous excitement to notice. Most were trying to get the Sheriff’s attention, churning up the dirt in the arena, jumping over things, weaving through barrels, around cones and hiking up small tube tops to prevent the “boobie poppin” predicted by the men’s room rap session.

 

     Yep, this season was going to be a mixed blessing. With saddle sticking talent like he’d seen today, forest training the riders wouldn’t be a problem. The horses would come around with experience and exposure to distractions. But pheromone control? Now that might turn out to be the challenge with this bunch.

 

 

 

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2 A PREVIOUS INCIDENT

 

 

       Several weeks earlier in a county North of Soquili:

 

        It was time. Adrenaline and purpose was an exhilarating combination. The organist in the middle of the arena was putting the hammer down, happy little tunes like “Rocky Top” and “Dixie” and the horses were flying around the oblong track. This was the final competition of the night and everyone would be ringside to join in the frenzied cheering for his or her favorite in the Walking Horse Stake class.

 

       “Let em running walk, let em walk, let em walk on…” instructed the announcer in an animated singsong voice meant to pump the horses and the crowd. As far as the audience was concerned, the announcer’s enthusiasm was anecdotal. They’d already whipped themselves into a frenzy, adrenalin coursing through their veins in time with the piston like action of the horses shoulders as they attempted to walk on their crouched hind legs, keeping their front end high in the air, the front hooves coming off the ground as if landing on hot coals. The ancient rebel yell, only slightly modified from Civil War days, rolled across the arena in ear splitting volume.

 

       To an outsider, the visual would have been shocking. The horses looked like they were drowning, their hindquarters being sucked into a whirlpool from which only the flailing of their front limbs could save them. Elegantly costumed riders hunched over the horse’s center of gravity making what was already a bizarre aberration of gait even more difficult.

 

       Somewhere along the line, the time-honored tradition defined by the great Midnight Sun had changed. The “Big Lick” had trumped the natural beauty of the breed and its God given gaits and talent. The horse’s kind, gentle nature had worked against it. Man had taken advantage of the temperament and bastardized the talent using the cruelest of training methods to build an entire industry around the “Big Lick”. And few insiders questioned the means to the end. It had just “always been done this way and everybody did it”. Owners, trainers, riders and spectators, all immune to the pain and suffering that had gone into producing the “Big Lick”.

 

       While they were all whooping it up in the arena, what was about to happen in the parking lot would get their attention. The moon phase was helping with the darkness. The rain kept any fool who wasn’t at ringside out of the parking lot and provided a good excuse to hide behind the dark hoody and riding clothes. The list of “Big Lick” tag numbers and trailer descriptions was in hand. The hammer was a last minute addition that could easily be carried inside the hoody along with the ice pic. A couple of stabs to each rig were all that were required. Minimum exposure, maximum mayhem in the form of 24 flat tires, then on to the next step in the plan. A man with a flashlight and dog was approaching. Security? Really? Time to go…now. The ice pic dropped from the hoodie.

 

 

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 3 A HORSE WITH NO NAME

 

       One more problem working in the back of Jubal’s mind was the opinionated red horse they’d rescued. Deputies had found the horse stranded in the back of a side-boarded pickup in the median of the interstate. Jubal had him brought back to the barn when all they’d found in the abandoned truck cab was a rolled up newspaper with a classified ad circled in ink. The Sheriff’s Department was located on the grounds of the Soquili County Equestrian Training Facility with full access to the considerable amenities provided by the Center. The Department had their own barn and paddocks and full use of the indoor and outdoor arenas whenever profit-making events were not being held. Boarding the horse temporarily was not a problem but keeping a horse that couldn’t be used wouldn’t be tolerated much longer.

 

     Jubal remembered the day, three months ago, when the horse was brought in. As soon as he came off the trailer, Jubal took an instant shine to the tall, thin red horse. He was definitely a Saddlebred; large alert eyes full of curiosity and intelligence, an elegantly arched neck and a spring loaded upright posture, poised for action. This particular horse also possessed an air of arrogance bordering on defiance. “Piss and vinegar” his grandfather would have called it. His natural tail carriage, which in any other horse would indicate an eminent bowel movement, was disconcerting. If the horse was moving, the tail was in the air.

 

     Jubal had little experience with Saddlebreds and decided to take him for a test drive in the large out door jumping arena. The first few laps showed that the horse had an ultra smooth walk, trot, extended trot and canter. When Jubal tried to shift him into the slow gait or rack he got no response. The horse was not interested in carrying Master over the plantation in style and comfort like his Kentucky bred ancestors. Ok, Jubal thought, maybe he could jump? Based on the over the top leap the horse had taken over a puddle in the interstate median, it was a strong possibility. Jubal picked him up to an energetic trot but despite the fact that the horse appeared to be athletic and extremely forward, he came to an abrupt dead standstill at the first trot pole. Jubal almost kept going without the horse but in Jubal’s case that just never happened. The second time around the horse didn’t even slow down. He just did a right angle bounce around the pole, displaying obstinacy but also impressive agility. Jubal tried a few more times and got a variety of creative evasions. Giving up on the trot poles, the rest of the ride was just for fun. Jubal always liked to end a ride on a good note so he dismounted and gave the horse a gentle pat on the neck. While he was pulling up the stirrups on the worn English saddle, the horse broke away, went into a gallop and took himself over every high jump on the outside perimeter of the arena. After clearing all the jumps the horse came to a standstill then stood looking back over his shoulder with saucer-sized eyes that made contact with Jubal’s and didn’t blink. The horse was smirking with his lips and Jubal had to chuckle in response. This horse had Jubal’s number and would be calling collect.

 

     Over the next few months it started to look like the horse sat up nights thinking of tricks that would make Jubal laugh. Most often the tricks were at someone else’s expense. Someone who usually had it coming for getting within earshot and making fun of the gangly horse. They were usually bragging about all the things they wouldn’t put up with from a “horse like that” or popping off about “exactly what this horse needs”. Jubal had to hand it to the horse…he sure knew how to pick his victims. He knew exactly whose overly expensive Stetson he grabbed from across the fence: the most arrogant man in Soquili County, the Mayor who was also Jubal’s boss. The horse took the hat to the middle of the paddock, put his foot down on the crown, stuck his nose in the air and curled his lips while the Mayor’s entourage slapped their thighs and did their best Elvis impersonations: “Thank you, thank you very much.” The horse had made Jubal’s day. But that was also the day Jubal had to move him to an isolated paddock away from public access. And the Mayor who wanted him gone yesterday.

 

     The Stetson incident eventually died down after Jubal bought the Mayor a new hat and put an entertaining spin on the whole incident. The Mayor came out looking like a good sport with a funny campaign story about throwing a hat into the ring. Once again Jubal’s diplomatic skills saved the day and time passed.

 It was now early fall and with the cooler weather came the annual responsibilities associated with the training of horses and volunteers for the Sheriff’s Posse. Jubal had to pass the red horse on and get back to his own hard working palomino Quarter Horse. He reluctantly turned the Saddlebred over to the training staff. The County Barn couldn’t afford to keep a temperamental horse that couldn’t be ridden or handled by the average reserve deputy. But to Jubal’s dismay, the horse had pulled another stunt this morning. One that was going to get him one step closer to a dog food can. Jubal’s most patient mounted deputy had no sooner landed her butt in the saddle than the horse flipped his tail straight up over his spine, slapped her in the back of the head with it then snaked his neck around to bite her boot toe. She pulled her foot back out of the stirrup to avoid his teeth and that’s when he made his move. He grabbed her boot leg and pulled her out of the saddle and off his back into the dirt. Having performed this trick in front of Jubal and the entire training staff pretty much assured that the horse had blown his last best chance at redemption. It was clear as the deputy picked herself up and dusted off her breeches that she was done with him.

 

     Damnation. Jubal just didn’t have the time to take this horse on by himself, keep his own horse in shape and run the department. Soon enough the horse would figure out the score and then become just another misplaced, misunderstood horse, pissed at the world. Jubal let out a deep sigh, worried about what would happen to the horse if he couldn’t figure something out.

 

 

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 4 FIRE AND BRIMSTONE

 

       To add to Jubal’s frustration, his cell phone rang just before midnight Sunday. The call was from Sheriff Bohannon, several counties to the South.

 

      “Jubal, hate to call you at this God awful time of night but we’ve had another incident over here. That Tennessee Walking Horse tack shop down town across from the show grounds was broken into earlier tonight.”

“Sorenson’s Tack shop? Hate to hear that Bo. Fax me a list and we’ll keep a look out for the stolen goods.”

“Won’t be necessary Jubal. They cleaned out all the bits, whips, spurs, tail sets, stacks, chains and chemicals in the building. Took some Quarter Horse bits and spurs too. We didn’t trace it till Rand McDougal’s farm help called in a fire at his place about two hours ago. When we got there his new 6-horse trailer with the living quarters was all but gone in the fire. We could still see part of what had been spray painted on the side. “Lick This” in big bright red letters. Still too hot to tell but we think the stolen merchandise was probably inside. Found traces of chemicals poured around the outside of the trailer. The chemicals either helped it burn or was meant to keep people away while it finished burning. Kerosene and diesel fuel for sure and some other stuff we couldn’t identify. We’re just going to have to wait and let it burn out. I’ve put in a request for a haz mat crew to come in first. We may end up calling in the feds on this one. This war between the “Lickers” and the “Flatters” has been on their radar for a long time now but the government and the politicians don’t seem to give a flying gnat’s ass either way.

Jubal was silent a moment or two. Gut wrenching flashbacks of his history with Rand McDougal ripped through his brain.

 

     “I’m guessing about now ole Rand is wishing the USDA had got to him first. That was an extreme act but if you think about it Bo, another way to look at it would be what they call poetic justice. Rand and his daddy played with fire all their lives and between the two of them a lot of innocent Walking Horses passed through that barn.”

 Jubal was referring to the abusive and illegal practice of chemical “soring” used to produce the trademark “Big Lick” leg elevation associated by many with the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. Applying a chemical that burned and abraded so that the chains would irritate the skin above the front hooves was only one of many horrifically painful and debilitating abuses uncovered in the show world of the Tennessee Walking Horse, and to a lesser extent, the Racking Horse and Spotted Saddle Horse world as well. At one point, the Tennessee Walking Horse world championship “Celebration” show held in Shelbyville, Tennessee had been shut down by the USDA because of infractions to the rules against abuse. The shame of it was that most decent horse loving folks were happy with the God given natural beauty and functionality of the breed’s gait. As in so many other horse sports, those in power, including the show judges, demanded performance far beyond the natural. And there are always those willing to do whatever it takes to win.

 

     Sheriff Bohannon was clearly not in as contemplative a mood as Jubal.

“We need to talk face to face, Jubal. Soon. This is officially not funny anymore. If this is our local vigilante group, this arson just moved them into the big leagues. We gotta quit looking the other way and find whoever is behind this and stop them before somebody gets hurt”.

 

     When he hung up it was well after midnight. Jubal poured himself a slug of Jack Daniels and reared back in his recliner. Lifting the glass, he posed a toast to the dog at his feet: “Here’s to bold women, crazy ass horses, justice and whoever the hell lit that fire under McDougal.” The fireplace crackled and Jubal scratched the dogs ears while softly chuckling “Hell yeah, lick this you SOB”.

 

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