Authors: Laura Crum
Tags: #central California coast, #woman veterinarian, #horse training, #marijuana cultivation, #mystery fiction, #horse owners
A Gail McCarthy Mystery
Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Company
Palo Alto/McKinleyville, California
This is a work of fiction. Characters, places, and events are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real people, companies, institutions, organizations, or incidents is entirely coincidental.
The interior design and the cover design of this book are intended for and limited to the publisher’s first print edition of the book and related marketing display purposes. All other use of those designs without the publisher’s permission is prohibited.
Copyright © 2012 by Laura Crum
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
A Perseverance Press Book
Published by John Daniel & Company
A division of Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc.
Post Office Box 2790
McKinleyville, California 95519
Distributed by SCB Distributors (800) 729-6423
Cover design and illustration by Peter Thorpe
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Barnstorming : a Gail McCarthy mystery / by Laura Crum.
ISBN [first printed edition] 978-1-56474-508-8 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. McCarthy, Gail (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Santa Cruz County (Calif.)—Fiction. I. Title.
For Andy and Zak,
with all my love
Many thanks to Henry and Sunny,
our partners in exploring the
trails along the ridge
I was riding my palomino gelding along the ridge, my eyes on the shafts of afternoon sunlight slanting between the eucalyptus trees, my mind elsewhere. Pondering what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, actually. So it was Sunny who spotted the white mare. His yellow ears pricked sharply forward, his head came up a couple of inches, and he checked. I looked where he was looking and saw the horse and rider.
Jane Kelly and her Arab mare were coming down the ridge trail, headed in our direction. I knew Jane and her mount from way back, from over ten years ago when I had been a practicing equine veterinarian. Then, Jane had been one of my clients. Lately I’d been meeting her from time to time out on the trails. Jane was always by herself, riding Dolly, whose dapple gray color had gone white with age. I was usually with my son, Mac, on his steady sorrel gelding, Henry. But Henry had colicked three months ago, and we had sent him to colic surgery to save his life. While Henry was recovering, my trail rides were solo, too.
I pulled Sunny up and said, “Hi Jane,” wanting to warn both her and her horse that I was ahead of her. Some horses could spook quite violently when startled by an unexpected horse and rider.
Not Dolly. She lifted her head at my voice and the sight of Sunny, but didn’t vary her steady pace. Which was perhaps not unexpected. Dolly had to be about twenty years old, and had been a trail horse for most of that time.
Jane looked up at the sound of my voice and then halted her horse about fifteen feet from me. She smiled. “Well, Gail McCarthy,” she said. “How are you doing these days?”
“Just fine,” I said, “and you?” I was not about to bore Jane with my current predicament; she was at best a casual acquaintance.
Jane shrugged. “I just moved Dolly to Lazy Valley Stable. I’m sick of that bitch at the Red Barn.”
I knew which bitch she meant. Tammi Martinez currently ran the Red Barn and she had not endeared herself to many of the boarders. On the other hand, feisty Jane had left a good many previous boarding stables in an irate tizzy. Jane wasn’t easy to get along with either.
“Didn’t you used to board at Lazy Valley before?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Jane shrugged again. “I’m not nuts about them, either. They charge way too much, and Juli, the woman that owns it, spouts that natural horsemanship bullshit all the time. Drives me crazy. But at least they have decent access to the trails.” Jane shot me a look. “Have you run into that guy with the big white dog? Bill Waters?”
“The guy who lives in that house down below here? Near the trail?” I asked.
“He sicced that dog on me once,” I said mildly.
Jane literally ground her teeth. “He just did that to me last week. The guy’s an asshole. I called the sheriffs on him. We’ve got a right-of-way through there. He has no damn business doing that. He almost got this one girl killed when her horse bolted.”
“Fortunately Sunny doesn’t mind dogs,” I said. “He ignored the stupid thing. So did my son’s horse. But it wouldn’t have been funny if the dog had spooked them.”
“No,” said Jane. “And the guy has no damn right to do it. The sheriff’s deputy said to call them if he does it again.”
“Is he the only trail access problem?” I was genuinely curious. I used the same trails that the boarding stable did. Trail access was an issue for me, too.
“Hell, no. You know that subdivision that went in?”
“Well, they won’t let us ride through there, either, so that way is blocked.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. I knew about the subdivision and its unhorsey residents, who didn’t care for equine hooves, or manure, on their pristine pavement. I also knew a little sidehill trail that detoured around the whole establishment and brought you out on the ridge. I decided to keep that knowledge to myself, for the moment.
“And the high school put up a frisbee golf course, so it’s hard to ride through there now without getting nailed by a flying disc. Even Dolly doesn’t care for that,” Jane stroked her mare’s white neck, “and she’s a good girl.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Sunny’s a good boy, too, and I don’t much care to ride through the high school anymore, either. Too many people and flying objects for my taste.”
“So, it just leaves the ridge trail, which is steep, and some nasty neighbor, we don’t know who, keeps trying to block it.”
“I noticed that,” I said. “I wondered what it was all about.”
Barriers of downed trees and branches kept appearing across that trail. Some we could step over, others we detoured around, sometimes we had to retrace our steps.
“Some piece of crap is trying to keep horses off the trails.” I could see Jane’s jaw clench. “They’ve got no right.”
“I wish they’d concentrate on keeping the dirt bikes off the trail,” I said. “I ran into one the other day. Sunny was fine, and it went by us with no problem, but I kept wondering what would happen if I met one coming around a blind corner at a good speed. What if there was nowhere for me to get out of the way? Even Sunny is not gonna put up with a dirt bike sliding underneath him. And the worst thing about it was, this guy on the bike just ignored me, acted like I wasn’t there.”
“I know.” Jane shook her head. “Those damn bikers are the worst. Did the guy have a big bushy beard?”
“Yeah, he did,” I said slowly, “now that you mention it. Do you know him?”
“He’s a jerk,” Jane said fiercely. “I’ve met him out here myself. Racing around. He doesn’t give a flying whatever if he spooks your horse. He’s gonna get somebody killed. I flip him off whenever I see him.”
I sighed. “I love being out on the trails,” I said, in a slightly more heartfelt tone than I’d meant to use. It was the truth, though. “I worry that it will just get to be too stressful to get here.”
“Me, too,” Jane said, “which is why I moved back to Lazy Valley. They can ride right out their back gate onto the trails.”
“Yeah, I know,” I agreed. “I’ve ridden over there a few times. Why did you move Dolly to the Red Barn to begin with?”
I thought I knew the answer to this, but was curious to hear Jane’s story.
“That bitch Sheryl Silverman stole my boyfriend,” Jane snapped. Always frank, old Jane. “I didn’t want to set eyes on either one of them again.”
“But you don’t mind anymore?”
“Well, actually, Doug and I are back together, so I guess I stole him back.” Jane grinned. “I don’t mind seeing Sheryl these days. She may not care to see me.”
I laughed. I knew Sheryl Silverman. I might not have employed the same term that Jane had used, but my sentiments were similar. Sheryl was a nasty piece of work. But young and good-looking enough to get away with it. She kept her horse at Lazy Valley Stable, and spent her time flirting with the wannabe cowboys who hung around there.
Looking at the fine lines around Jane’s blue eyes and the streaks of gray in her dark blond hair, I realized with a sense of shock that I probably looked roughly similar. I had turned fifty this year; my hair, too, was gray-streaked, my wrinkles quite obvious, and I carried twenty pounds I didn’t need.
“Good for you,” I said with a grin.
Jane answered as if she could read my mind. “Oh, I may not be as cute as Sheryl—not anymore—but in the end, I think Doug got bored with her. She really doesn’t have much to say.”
Or much brain, I thought. Jane, on the other hand, was plenty sharp and had lots to say. The trouble was her feisty nature, which often rubbed people the wrong way. Jane never seemed to keep boyfriends long, or friends, for that matter. I’d gotten along with her well enough over the years, but we’d never been close. Not that I was prone to making many close friendships myself.
“The worst thing about Lazy Valley,” Jane added, “is the damn owner. Juli and her boyfriend Jonah run the place, and they are so, so into that stupid natural horsemanship crap. It just makes me want to throw up.”
I grinned. I knew the owner of Lazy Valley. Also her boyfriend, who was the resident trainer. Both of them were huge fans and students of one of the preeminent natural horsemanship gurus.
“Don’t you hate that shit?” Jane asked me.
I shrugged. “I don’t see much point in it.”
“It’s all people who don’t know much about horses and are afraid to get on them and ride them.” Jane sniffed. “They feel safer on the ground playing these games with the horse, and then they get to call themselves a trainer without ever learning to ride. The trouble is, the horses don’t like it. It makes them cranky and uncooperative. And pushy. I’ve never seen one horse come out of these natural horsemanship programs that I thought much of.”
“I know what you mean,” I said mildly, not wanting to encourage Jane in another tirade.
Dolly rooted her nose a little and shifted her front feet, and Jane bumped her with the bit. “No, girl, we’re not going home until I say so.”
Sunny, I was pleased to note, was standing like a park bench. This was one of my little yellow horse’s many desirable qualities. He would stand flat-footed and still whenever he was asked to, patiently waiting for me to get done with whatever I was up to.
Jane glanced at Sunny. “He seems like a pretty cool customer,” she said.
“He is that,” I agreed.
“Where did he come from? I remember you used to ride a big bay horse with a blaze and one blue eye, and a smaller light brown horse with a white star.”
“Gunner and Plumber,” I said, and smiled. “I still have them. Gunner’s retired to pasture. He’s doing well. Plumber is twenty-two. He’s sound, but a little peggy. We still ride him, but he doesn’t care much for hills. I use Sunny when I want to go out on the trails.”
“Where did you get him?” Jane asked again.
“Up in the Sierra foothills,” I answered. It was a long story, and one that I didn’t feel like telling now. “I was told he came from Mexico via a horse trader. He’s a good trail horse,” I added.
Jane looked Sunny over. I knew what she was seeing. A small, thick-bodied critter, about 14.3 hands, Sunny looks like a Quarter Horse crossed on a large pony. He has big feet, like a draft horse, and is sturdily made, with plenty of bone and a slightly coarse look to him. But somehow, maybe it’s the bright gold color, or the long white mane and tail, or the big brown eyes, or the white stripe running down an attractive (though not small) head, the main thing Sunny is, is cute. Little girls mobbed me when I rode by the boarding stable. Experienced horsemen grinned and stroked his neck. Sunny is just that cute. Not fancy, well-bred-horse cute. Little-girl-stuffed-toy-pony cute.