They say, “Hell hath no fury like a chestnut mare.”
What they don’t say is Hell’s entrance is at a cross-country fence gone bad.
The ground reverberated under Lexi Garrod’s feet. She snapped her head in the direction of the sound to watch a gorgeous, bay horse thunder past her, clearing the four-foot-high jump she was judging. She shook out her long, curly blonde hair, repositioned her ball cap and checked her watch.
“OK, Beans, we have a couple minutes before our next competitor comes our way, let’s fix the divots!”
Beans, a scrappy Jack Russell terrier and Lexi’s constant shadow, obliged the call and trotted faithfully behind her as she tamped down the grass in front of the huge vertical log-wall jump she was attending to. He kept his snout in the air and ears at full alert waiting for the next horse and rider to round the bend in the field at Long View Farm’s cross country course. Beans could sense the horse’s approach and whimpered for Lexie to get out of the way. The little terrier had been a gift from Willa when she first arrived at the farm as a working student. Lexie lived in a tiny apartment over the south barn and Beans had wandered onto the farm one day. He was checked out and wasn’t chipped or tagged, so Willa suggested Lexie keep him as a companion. Willa was a well-known rescue advocate for dogs. Beans made himself at home the first night, jumping up onto Lexie’s bed and snuggling into the covers.
Lexie reached down and scrubbed his ears and returned to her judge’s chair at the far side of the jump.
Cross country jumping was Lexie’s passion. It haunted her dreams, day and night. At nineteen, she was on her own, moving to the eventing mecca of Aiken, South Carolina. Lexie spent her days mucking out stalls and grooming the tall, leggy jumpers for the two full-time trainers at Long View Farm. It was a hard job that kept her moving eight to ten hours a day. On the weekends, she was a jump judge for the United States Eventing Association shows held at Long View. Lexie lived and breathed eventing as a sport and a life choice. Growing up in New York City with a janitor dad and a drunken sod for a mother, Lexie didn’t have many opportunities for riding. One afternoon, Lexie and her best friend snuck away for an afternoon of show jumping at Madison Square Gardens. They pried open a rear access door and slithered along a wall until the arena came into view. Lexie was mesmerized by the horses that seemed to hop the fences with no effort at all. During one of the classes, a rider became unseated and the loose horse galloped happily around the arena. Lexie stared in disbelief at the freedom-loving gelding. He finally slowed his mad scramble and came to a stop right in front of Lexie. She carefully reached over the rail and took hold of his reins. While the owner made his way over to collect his horse, the big, dark gelding looked straight into Lexie’s eyes and sealed her fate. His deep, brown, soulful eyes almost beckoned her to come with him. She was transfixed until reality grabbed the reins from her hands. The horse was taken away and Lexie and her friend squealed in delight at the opportunity they were afforded to touch one of those magnificent horses!
While the jump crew readjusted the jumps, a tall, red-headed woman wearing skin-tight jeans and six-inch spike-heeled shoes approached the two girls.
“I just wanted to say thanks for catching my boy,” she proffered a hand to Lexie.
“Oh! I was just lucky to be in the right place!” Lexie exclaimed.
“Are you grooming for someone here?”
Lexie shrugged her shoulders, “No, we are just watching the show. I would give anything to groom for someone but I have a couple more years of high school before I can get out of New York.”
The mysterious woman dug into her designer handbag and popped a business card in Lexie’s direction.
“Call me when you get out of New York. I’m sure we could find a job for someone so star-struck with our horses.”
That was two years ago and Lexie kept that business card with her the whole time. Three days after she graduated she called the owner of Long View Farm and was hired on the spot. Her graduation gift from her tired father and barely-awake mother was a one-way bus ticket to Aiken.
And here she was, immersed in the lifestyle of the event horse. She knew she would probably never own one, but just to be around them was food for her soul. The mysterious lady she met at Madison Square was none other than Willa Samson, owner of Long View Farm, and a staunch supporter of the sport of eventing. Willa promised Lexie that soon she would be able to take riding lessons once she proved her salt in the stable. Lexie fairly vibrated with delight at the thought of being able to ride. She didn’t really know if she could ride or not but she was ready to give it a shot. Willa had promised after six months of hard work she would be allowed to start in the beginner camp. She was nearing the end of her trial period and everyone at the farm gave her great marks for being on time, hard-working, and honest.
Lexie checked her watch again and did a quick tally.
“Well, Beans, I think we have six more riders and then we’re done for the day.”
Lexie’s job as jump judge was to make sure each rider got over the fence correctly, to make note of any faults and to keep the path to the fence clear of any obstructions, which could be anything from stray dogs to downed riders. She also kept a sharp eye on the grass surface approaching the fence to make sure no holes were left behind. The surface in the piedmont area of Aiken County provided an ideal footing for jumpers. The sandy soil drained quickly and jumpers could attack the course in any weather. Long View hosted many events during the year from beginner levels to Olympic hopefuls.
Finally, a huge grey horse rounded the bend and headed for her jump. Lexie watched closely while scratching Beans’ ears.
The big grey cleared the fence with plenty of room and galloped off towards the next one. Lexie grabbed her two-way radio.
“Is that the last one?” She asked the control booth.
“Yes, come on in, we’re done for today,” came the reply.
Lexie picked up her clipboard and tote bag full of water bottles, judging supplies and snacks, and began the long walk back to the barn. The next-to-last jump on the course was over a mile away and was Lexie’s favorite. She chose that jump because it was close to the riding trail and far away from all the people. She could see the pleasure trail riders pass nearby, waving occasionally, and Beans could chase a squirrel without getting in the way. The peace she felt out there in the huge open field was something hard for her to describe.
She double checked the footing in front of the jump before whistling to Beans to follow her home.
As she traversed the tree line around the field she heard some horses trotting up the trail a few feet through the trees. She stopped to see if it was anyone she knew. A huge, pinto-colored horse strode into view leading a small group of trail riders. His diminutive rider was holding a tight rein on him. Lexie could tell he was a bold mover. She loved his color! The predominantly-white horse had dark brown patches swirling over his rump and neck and his mane and tail were glossy black. Tri-colored pintos of this size were a rare sight and Lexie waved enthusiastically at the group as they passed by.
“Whew, Beans, that horse was gorgeous! He must be seventeen hands if he’s an inch!” Lexie exclaimed.
Beans seemed to agree with her assessment as he stood at full attention, watching the riders file by.
The riders hailed back to her and strode out of sight around the next bend in the trail. Lexie set out for the secretary’s booth to turn in her walkie-talkie and her clip board.
The gals in the booth waved her inside and listened to Lexie’s evaluation of the jump she judged and the overall thoughts of the day. This was think-tank time while the event was fresh in everyone’s mind. As tired as they were, they all sat around a long, plastic table discussing every aspect of the show, from the dressage ring, to the stadium jump ring, to the cross-country course. They hashed out any perceived problems and looked over any formal complaints that may have come in during the day. Overall, the group felt the event went well. Willa arrived in her custom-painted purple golf cart with jumping horses painted all over it. She hopped up the two small steps into the booth and surveyed the crew.
“How did it go, gang?”
The event manager stood and handed her the results and the official paperwork for USEA.
“Stellar,” she replied. “We had 124 entries today and no complaints. We used the EMT once for a suspicious fall but the rider walked away on her own power, so all-in-all a great day!”
Willa nodded her head, pleased with the report. “Fantastic. Well, you all earned a good meal so meet us at the farmhouse at six o’clock for the barbeque. We’ll have five days to prepare for the next event and the meeting starts at seven tomorrow morning. Lexie, you are on night duty tonight so get a nap in before you report to the south barn at eleven.”
Lexie gave Willa a salute and whistled for Beans. She made her way to her apartment for a long, hot shower. She grabbed a plate of smoked chicken and salad from the barbeque, then, threw herself onto the couch with the TV on low. She set her cell phone to ring her awake at ten-forty-five and settled in for a snooze with Beans curled up behind her knees.
At ten-thirty Lexie awoke with a start. It never failed that when she set her alarm, she would waken well before the alarm went off. She pulled herself up from the couch, stretching her sore, cramped muscles. Beans stretched as well then began the bum wagging. His little, stumpy tail wagging away made his whole bum swivel back and forth. He knew it was time to go out to the barn, a favorite pastime chasing critters and boogers in the woods.
Lexie put some coffee on her machine, made a quick bathroom trip then grabbed the coffee and walked out to the south barn.
The barn was state-of-the-art, with gorgeous wood siding and hunter-green metal roofing. She could see the outline of the spires sticking up in the air from the roof with the bright moonlight. The lightning arresters kept the barn safe from the notoriously violent summer lightning storms. There were forty stalls in this barn. All were currently rented out to riders on the eventing circuit. Lexie slid open the wide, herringbone-designed front door and slithered inside, with Beans at her heels. Gentle nickering followed as the first few horses in the stall rows saw her enter and were hoping for a midnight snack. Lexie softly talked to them and walked down the aisles in the light of the dim nightlights placed on the wall every other stall. She glanced briefly in each stall to be sure none of the horses were cast against the wall or showing any signs of illness. Colic was a big killer of horses and often struck for no apparent reason in the middle of the night. Vigilant owners saved thousands of dollars by investing in a night watchman. Lexie did this watch two nights a week, from eleven to six in the morning. The extra cash and tips she received all went into her buy-a-horse-fund.
Lexie rounded the end of the first row of back-to-back stalls and thought she heard clip-clopping in the next aisle over. That sound shouldn’t be coming from a barn locked up for the night.
“Beans! Heel!” Lexie commanded the little sniffer to her side.
She furtively traveled the length of the next aisle, glancing in each stall to make sure the occupants were peacefully munching or sleeping. When she reached the far end of the aisle, the clip-clopping became louder and a few small squeals echoed through the barn. Lexie picked up the pace to the corner of the next aisle and peered carefully down the aisle to the source of the noise.
There stood the giant tri-colored pinto horse she’s seen earlier that day on the pleasure trail! He was saddle, bridles and sticking his nose into a stall where a somewhat-nasty chestnut mare was having no part of his wee-hour visit.
Lexie gave Beans the down-stay command and slowly approached the big gelding. In the gloominess of the night lights, the horse appeared to be just wandering around looking for a place to hang his bridle. But as Lexie got closer, she could see a gash on his front cannon bone, just below the knee. The blood was dripping steadily from the horizontal slash. Lexie did a quick head count of the twenty stalls as she advanced on the injured horse and realized all stall were accounted for and full of other horses. Where did this guy come from? Where was his owner? How did he hurt himself?
The vast, colorful gelding stayed steady when Lexie took hold of his reins. She noted that they had snapped at the buckle and there was a dirty streak on his cheek and the bridle had gouges down the cheek piece. It was apparent to Lexie that the horse took a nasty spill and snapped the reins when he got back up. But, where was the rider?
“Hello?” Lexie called out while she led the horse to the wash rack. “Anybody here?”
She backed the gelding into the wash stall and slid a spare halter on over his bridle and clipped him to the crossties. She peeked around the wall and noticed that the back door of the barn was open slightly, something that was never done at Long View. Doors were buttoned up after the evening meals were distributed to keep “night critters” from helping themselves to the place.
“Hello?” Lexie called out again but all she could here were munching horses and night insects outside.
Her immediate thoughts were to stem the bleeding, wash the leg and get it wrapped before calling a veterinarian in and alerting the main house of the errant guest. She released Beans from his stay and began hosing down the leg. With the lights on full in the wash stall, she could see the extent of the damage to his leg. It was a deep gash, one that would require stitches so she flushed the wound greatly and took a close look to make sure nothing foreign lay in it. Then she pulled the emergency kit off the wall and began bandaging the cut.
The big horse took her ministrations well. He sniffed at her head while she kneeled in front of him. She cooed to him while she picked grass and dirt from the wound and he responded with a wiggly kiss to her head. It was as if he knew she was going to make him better and he showed no fear as many horses do after an injury.
Once the wound was dressed, she quickly un-saddled him and removed the bridle. Not wanting to leave him alone on the cross-ties, she unhooked him and decided to bring him to the show barn where there were some empty stalls so she could safely leave him to get help.
On the short walk to the show barn, she scanned the night for any signs of a rider, quite possibly injured themselves, stalking the woods looking for their horse. She stopped twice to listen intently, but heard nothing out of the ordinary.
Once the horse was settled into a large box stall, Lexie filled the water bucket, checked his bandages once more, then, called for Beans to follow her to the main house.
Lexie knocked loudly on the wide oak door with a stirrup iron etched into it. It was past midnight and she was sure the occupants were deep under the sheets. She knocked again and hollered, “Hello!”
When she glanced into the side window of the door, she saw a light come on in the upstairs hall.
“Good, good, good, Beans, someone heard us.”
Willa opened the door and could tell by the look on Lexie’s face, the news was not that good.
“What’s happened, Lexie,” Willa asked before noticing the blood stains on her jeans. “Are you hurt?!”
“No, but we have an unexpected guest in the south barn. I was doing the walk-around when I hear a horse walking in the last aisle. This giant pinto gelding was standing at Mirra’s stall, sniffing her nose. She was squealing and he was all tacked up. When I got close enough to catch him I could see he was injured. I don’t think he’s one of our boarders because all our stalls are full with the rightful occupants. But I do remember seeing him on the pleasure trail this afternoon at the end of the cross country jumping.”
“Goodness!” Willa exclaimed. “I wonder where the rider is. We need to call the sheriff’s department to start a search and do you think we need a vet?”
“Yes, he’s got quite a gash on his front leg. I’ve cleaned it and bandaged it up, but I think it needs stitches.”
“Where is he now?” Willa asked.
“He’s in stall three at the show barn. He seems OK, he’s eating the hay I gave him and I think he drained the water bucket. Who knows how long he’s been out there.”
“Good girl, Lexie. I’ll wake the staff and get Dr. Hempstead here. When the sheriffs arrive please tell them what you know and we’ll get everyone out looking for the rider. Horses don’t just show up without one unless there’s been an accident.”
“Yes, he looks like he’s has a fall, too. His bridle is all scratched and dirty and he snapped his reins,” Lexi added.
The lights came on full bore in the big house and Willa’s staff was alerted to the goings on. Lexi returned to the show barn to check on the horse while trainers and grooms alike were rousted from their warm beds to look for a potentially-injured rider.
Within minutes, the first sheriff’s car arrived and Lexi waved him over to the show barn. She gave the officer a full description of what she encountered, and showed him the horse.
The yard came alive with staff members and more patrol cars. Lexi led them to the barn where she first encountered him. She pointed out the open back door and everyone followed her through to find the hoof prints that might tell them where he came from. The sheriff’s strong flashlights lit up the night and they followed the prints, easily seen in the super-bright LED lights. Everyone fanned out behind Lexi, Beans and the officer. They carefully followed his big shoe prints along a small path that led to the cross-country field. When they reached the field, the prints became one with a thousand other prints. The sheriff ordered the staff and take different grid areas and to watch carefully for a downed rider or any signs of a scuffle.
Beans had his nose to ground and Lexi followed his path heading for the break in the field where the pleasure trail could be easily accessed. As she passed by each fence, she carefully searched around all sides and as far as the beam of light could see.
Suddenly, Beans let out a low growl.
“What is it, Beans?” Lexi softly spoke to the dog.
Beans’ hair was standing up across the length of his back. Lexie collared him immediately and shone the flashlight in the direction of the dog’s stare.
As she panned the jump near her with the bright light rays, she could see what looked like a striped shirt lying in a pile on the ground.
“Sheriff!” she shouted behind her. “There’s something over here!”
She approached the clothing piece slowly with Beans bristling at her side. The sheriff caught up to her after directing the others to keep looking. They drew near the shirt and both flashlights lit up the entire jump and surrounding ground. Beans was virtually vibrating in place. He was clearly sensing something wrong.
The sheriff leaned down and with a gloved hand, picked up the remnants of a striped riding shirt. There was a sizeable rip along the front, from shoulder to hemline, and there was blood…lots of blood…on the shirt and the ground.
Lexie grabbed her shirt at the neckline and gasped when she saw what the sheriff was holding.
“Oh, my God,” she struggled for a breath.
The sheriff looked at her and shook his head. “This is now an active crime scene. I’m going to ask you and you staff members to go back to the barn while I call for back-ups.”
Lexie motioned for Beans to follow her back to the barn. The rest of the trainers and grooms, groundskeepers and family members that were out searching all fell back in line as Lexie led them to the show barn.
When she got to the horse’s stall, Lexie gulped in a huge breath and blew it out before she told everyone what Beans and she had found. There was much murmuring and startled looks between the staffers.
Willa entered the barn and was brought up to speed on the happenings out on the cross-county field. The veterinarian was seen rounding the curve in the drive and one of the grooms hailed him to the show barn. Willa gave Lexie a hug and asked if she was all right.
“I’ve got the heebie-jeebies but otherwise I’m OK. I think I’ll concentrate of the horse and let the law dudes take care of whatever THAT was out there,” she glanced out the door in the direction of the field.”
“Smart girl. They will figure out what happened. In the meantime, we need to see to this big fella and make sure he has no other injuries.”
Dr. Hempstead strolled through the door yawning loudly. “Well, what have we tonight? Colic? Cast? Night terrors..hee hee” he giggled at his own wit.
Willa, shook his hand and thanked him for coming out so quickly. She told him the story of the horse and had Lexie halter him and hold him in the stall while the veterinarian did a full body check.
“Well, there, what did you get into,” the doc spoke soothingly to the big gelding while slowly palpating all the areas on his body. “By the way, Lexi, what’s his name?”
Lexi looked nonplussed. “Dah…ummm…I don’t know. I’m just going to call him… Big!”