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Authors: Dandi Daley Mackall

Tags: #JUVENILE FICTION / Religious / Christian

Dark Horse

BOOK: Dark Horse
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Dark Horse

Copyright © 2009 by Dandi Daley Mackall. All rights reserved.

Cover photo of large horse copyright © by Jupiter Images. All rights reserved.

Cover photo of small horse copyright © by Eric Isselee/ All rights reserved.

Author photo copyright © 2006 by John Maurer of Maurer Photography Studio. All rights reserved.

Designed by Jacqueline L. Nuñez

Edited by Stephanie Voiland

Scripture quotations are taken from the
Holy Bible
, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4143-1271-2

To all the wonderful readers

who love horses as much as I do and who have written to encourage me as I’ve poured myself into the Starlight and Winnie series.

And to Katy,

my first reader and #1 fan. Thank you!

I have so many people to thank for the Winnie the Horse Gentler books and the Starlight Animal Rescue books. The wonderful people at Tyndale House have made a home for me and my characters for years. Thanks to Karen Watson, who first floated the idea of having me write a horse series for Tyndale, and to Ron Beers and Carla Whitacre Mayer and Ken and Mark Taylor, who always made me feel like these books are vital. Thanks to Ramona Tucker and Jan Axford and Stephanie Voiland for amazing editing and to Katara Washington Patton for her support and direction. I’m grateful to the entire Tyndale staff, like Jan Pigott and Erin Smith, who proofread and copyedit and keep me from embarrassing myself in print. And thanks to the rest of the team—people who work, play, and pray together: Cheryl Kerwin, who does so much to get these books to readers; Jackie Nuñez, book designer extraordinaire; Rachel Griffin, product manager; Talinda Iverson, print buyer; and Steve Wagner, for his never-ending support. What a team effort this has been!


Hank Coolidge

Nice, Illinois

“Come on now, girl. I could never love that redhead more than you.” I stroke Starlight’s sweaty neck and lean into the turn as we canter too close to the pond. I can smell pond scum and fish. “Okay. I admit Cleo’s a looker. She’s got spunk and spirit. But nobody’s as sweet as you, Starlight. Besides, I’ve always been partial to Paints.”

I’ve been riding blind for several minutes. Keeping my eyes shut isn’t easy on horseback. I don’t do it often. But when I need to feel connected with my blind horse, this helps. I can sink into Starlight and trust her the way she trusts me. We’ve both been over every inch of this pasture hundreds of times, so there aren’t any surprises left in it to trip us up.

It’s been over a week since I rode Starlight, and I can’t remember when I’ve gone this long without our ride. But the redhead—a sorrel mare named Cleopatra—has taken up every minute of my after-school time. Yesterday was the first time the mare let me get close enough to brush her. Cleo’s a gorgeous Danish Warmblood, over 16 hands high, with a well-set neck, perfect shoulders, a muscular back, and strong legs . . . and so touchy it’s almost impossible to imagine riding her.

We rescued Cleo from a circus a few weeks ago, at the end of October, no questions asked. But I have a million questions I’d like to ask that circus trainer, starting with what they did to the horse to make her so terrified of humans.

Starlight tosses her head, and I know instantly by the tightening I feel in her back that something’s wrong. I open my eyes and ease her to a trot while I search the ground around us. No snakes. Nothing unusual I can make out.

Starlight snorts and prances in place.

Then I smell it.

Please let it be leaves burning.
But I know it’s not. My dad’s a fireman. I

I look back across the pasture, across two fields, and there it is, a feather of smoke rising like a thundercloud. I can’t see our house. But the sky is red, like a sunset all in one spot.

Starlight lunges to a gallop before I have the sense to cue her. She’s heading straight for home. I hunch low on her neck, urging her to fly. My mind’s spinning. Who’s in the house? Is Kat there? Is she asleep? Would she smell the smoke? Hear the alarm? Is Wes inside? Dakota?

“Come on, girl,” I whisper to Starlight. We’re through one pasture and galloping across the second. Grass, leaves, trees, all blur by. The acrid stench is stronger now. My eyes burn.

Out of the gray fog of smoke comes a horse racing toward us. I can’t see it well enough to make out its color or features. Someone’s riding it. The long strides, the outstretched neck tell me the horse is Blackfire. And that means Dakota’s riding him. They’re flying straight at Starlight and me.

Neither of us slows as we get closer and closer to each other. Just as I’m about to pull up Starlight so we don’t crash into Blackfire, Dakota pivots her horse 180 degrees. Blackfire rears, then drops and springs into a gallop beside us.

“Is everybody out of the house?” I yell over the pounding of hooves and the rush of wind. We’re galloping side by side, neck and neck.

“Yes!” She shouts something else, but I can’t hear it.

But she said yes. So they’re out. They’re safe. We can handle anything else.

“. . . horses, Hank!” Dakota shouts. And again, I can’t understand what she’s saying.

“What?” I yell, still galloping full speed.

“Not the house!” she screams. “The barn!”

I look toward the barn, and I can see for myself now. Smoke is billowing from the barn, not the house. Flames shoot up like fingers of fire.

“The horses?” I cry. “Dakota, are the horses out?”
Three were in the barn. Maggie and Bay Boy, the two rescues we’re having trouble placing. And Cleo. I should have turned them out to pasture. But I was so anxious to ride Starlight. I left them in the barn until after my ride.

“Maggie and Bay Boy are out. Popeye and I got them,” Dakota shouts.

“Cleo?” I demand. My throat closes on the word. I can’t breathe. “What about Cleo?”

Dakota shakes her head. “Hank . . .” She’s crying. Galloping. And crying.

“What about Cleo?” I scream.

Dakota moves in so close that Blackfire bumps my leg. “Cleo’s still in the barn!”


“Whoa!” I pull hard on the reins. Starlight slides to a halt. “Dakota! Come back here!”

It takes her a minute to get Blackfire slowed and turned around. “Why are you stopping? Didn’t you hear me? Cleo’s still in the barn! We have to get—!”

I jump off Starlight and throw the reins to Dakota. “Stay here.”

“I want to help!” she cries. But she takes the reins.

“I don’t have time to argue. Do you want Blackfire to run back into that barn?”

She doesn’t answer. I can tell she hadn’t thought of that. But that’s what horses do in a panic, in a fire. They try to go back to their safest spot, the place where they’ve felt the most at home.

I shout, “No matter what, don’t let either horse any closer to the barn!” I don’t think my horse would try to run to her stall, but she might.

I take off running toward the barn. My heart is pounding. Smoke fills the air. It hurts to breathe.

Someone’s screaming. I think it’s coming from the barn. The sound is shrill. Like a cry from some other planet. It can’t be coming from a horse. From Cleo.

Dad’s in his fireman’s gear. He looks ridiculous. One lone fireman standing in front of a blazing barn with a garden hose.

“Dad! Dad!” I yell across the yard at him, but he doesn’t turn around. The fire laps up our barn, flicking flames from the roof. It crackles and sizzles.

“Hank!” Kat’s standing in front of the house when I run by. She’s crying. She reaches out for me, but I can’t stop.

Cleo could be on fire, burning to death right now.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Wes struggling to hold his dogs back. They’re barking at the fire, at the chaos. Wes is yelling at them. Everything is loud. I didn’t know fires were so loud. Dad never said they were this loud.

I don’t stop running until I’m next to Dad. “Cleo . . .” My breath’s gone. I cough and spit. I’m afraid I’m going to vomit.

“I know!” Dad shouts. He moves the puny hose back and forth, a squirt gun trying to put out the sun. The gentle stream of water arcs to the roof. Flames leap to it, as if grateful for the drink.

“The fire department’s on its way!” Dad yells. “They’ll be here any minute.”

I try to see into the barn. Smoke bursts from the windows in steady puffs. I hear glass breaking. Something falls, crashes, but I can’t tell where the sound’s coming from.

I move for the door.

“Hank, don’t!” Dad shouts.

“I have to!” I shout back.

He grabs me from behind. I struggle to get away. We both go down.

“Listen. You can’t go in there.” His grip is tight. The hose is free, writhing like a snake in the dirt.

I jerk my shoulders away and break Dad’s grip. I scramble to my feet. But I don’t try to run into the barn again. Flames are leaping across the door. They jump, then disappear, then jump again. “I can’t just let her burn to death.”

“This way!” Dad’s got the hose again. Aiming the water spray at the window, he pushes me toward the side of the barn. “Follow me!”

We round the barn to the back, the stall side. “She’s in there,” he says, pointing. Smoke rushes out of the stalls, but the flames are still up front. “Dakota got the mare out. Then that poor horse ran back in. After that, we couldn’t get near her. That’s when Dakota took off after you. We got the others out.”

My eyes are watering. Clouds of smoke, thick and gray, swarm inside the barn, making it even harder to see into the stall. But it’s Cleo’s stall. She’s got to be there.

“Cleo!” I scream. It’s hopeless. The horse didn’t come to me when things were good. She’s not going to come to me in a fire. That stall is the only safe place she’s known, maybe in her whole life.

I start toward the stall.

“What are you doing?” Dad yells. He’s aiming the water in a steady stream on the ground in front of me. Then he moves the spray inside the stall.

The smoke clears around the water spray. And there she is. Cleo. She’s backed into a corner of the stall.

“She’s there, Dad! I have to try. I’ll be careful.”

“She won’t come with you, Hank. You know that.”

I do know that. Horses in a panic think the devil they
see is better than the devil they can’t.

That’s it!
“I have to blindfold her!” I pull off my sweatshirt. The heat of the smoke and fire makes my skin burn. “Douse the shirt! Now!”

Dad understands and aims his hose at my sweatshirt until it’s soaked through.

I take in a deep breath and head toward the stall, tying the wet sleeves together as I go. My eyes sting so bad I can hardly see to tie the sleeves. My hands are shaking. I feel the stall door with my foot, kick it, and barge in.

“Cleo, it’s me.” It’s so hard to see. My throat burns, like I’ve swallowed fire. There’s a stench in here. The smoke. But something else. Like burned flesh.

I press the shirt to my eyes and over my mouth, trying to breathe in something besides smoke.

Then I see Cleo. Her eyes are bugged out. Her nostrils are huge. She’s dancing in place, trying to back farther into the corner.

“Easy, girl.” The words, the smoke, the burning all make me cough so hard I can’t stand up straight. “Easy,” I try again.

She’s anything but easy. She rears. Her halter jingles. I left the halter on. I was coming right back for her after my ride.
I should have—
But I can’t think of that now. I have to get her out.

Dad’s yelling at me from outside the stall. A steady stream of water keeps a pathway open. Something crashes at the front of the barn. The roof creaks. Fire crackles.

Cleo rears, then rears again. Backed into the corner like this, rearing is her only defense.

I time her rears—a big one, followed by two little ones.
Big. Little, little.
When her hooves land again, I make my move. I close in and slip the wet sweatshirt over her eyes. She squeals. I step to the side of her. Her forelegs strike out, but I’m out of the way. I grab the halter. “Come on.”

She won’t move. Her feet are planted. She pushes her rump deeper into the corner. There’s a black patch on her rump. A burn. She’s been burned.

“Please, Cleo!” I know better than to try to lead her straight out. She’s much stronger than I am. She’s going to win any tug-of-war.

“Hank! Get out!” Dad screams. He’s in the doorway now.

I’m running out of time. “Keep away!” I shout at him.

I yank the halter toward me, throwing Cleo off-balance. If I can get her in motion, make her circle, she won’t know where she is. I pull her into a tight circle. She stumbles with every step. I circle her twice. Then I straighten her and head for the stall door. She gathers herself. Then she lunges.

I can’t hold on. The shirt falls from her face. Dad jumps out of the way.

And Cleopatra flies through the doorway.

“Yeah!” I shout. “We did it!” I run behind her to the open doorway.

Cleo stands a few feet from the barn, her tail to me. She’s shaking. A horrible cry—a scream—comes from somewhere deep inside her. It racks her rib cage, shakes her belly. And turns me to ice.

The horse rears, pawing the air. Then she spins around, ears flat back.

“Get out of the way!” Dad cries.

Cleo wants back in the barn. And I’m the only thing standing between that horse and the fire. I see the whites of her eyes. She lowers her head like a fighting bull. Bares her teeth.

And charges.

BOOK: Dark Horse
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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