Written in 68 minutes. Turns out I didn’t know a lot of about horses so I had to do a little Google searching
Elizabeth trailed reluctantly after Jason into the stables, a bit apprehensive at being so close with the horses. Outside of carriages back home and the wagon ride from the heart of town to the ranch, Elizabeth had little to do with the animals—and even then, there had been grooms and stableboys to handle all of that.
But Lila had offered her an opportunity to plan the next town assembly, her first real act as Jason’s wife and a member of a prominent family—a role she had been raised to fulfull, she thought later, and that meant traveling back and forth to town often. She couldn’t expect Jason to cart her back and forth all the time or to hire someone to take care of her.
Jason might have money and come from a socially advantaged family, but things were different out here, and Elizabeth was determined to do what was needed—
Even if that meant learning how to guide a horse out of his stall and hooking him up to a wagon, then driving that wagon by herself the several miles into town.
“The road is well-marked,” Jason told her as he went down the aisle in the stables, six stalls on either side and a tack room in the back where the saddles and equipment was stored. Not every stall had a horse inside, but there were six or seven of them—their heads hanging out over the stall door.
Jason stopped at the first—one that she recognized as the one he rode out every time he went into town. He smiled, brushing his fingers over the long head and brown coat. He looked back at Elizabeth, still hanging back. “Come here—”
“He’s awfully big,” she murmured even as she forced herself to take a step forward. The horse’s head was twice as large as hers—no, probably four times, but he had lovely deep brown eyes and an obvious affection for his owner, batting his head at Jason’s shoulder. “What’s his name? I’ve never asked.”
“Teddy,” Jason answered, and her brows raised. “I named him when I was six,” he offered. “When he was born.”
“Oh. I didn’t—” Elizabeth lifted her hand and reluctantly laid it on the side of the horse’s head. “It’s like velvet,” she murmured, stroking. Teddy turned his attention from his owner to the new person, a soft sound escaping, not terribly different from the way Cameron murmured when she rubbed his back. She smiled. “I didn’t realize horses lived that long, honestly.”
“Teddy’s twenty, and in his senior years.” Jason’s mouth tightened. “They can live longer than thirty years, but it’s not always typical. He doesn’t know he’s old yet. Still runs like a foal—” He exhaled slowly. “But I was thinking of a mare for you. I know you don’t know how to ride—we’ll have to take care of that after the thaw next spring, it’s too hot to learn properly now—”
“I took a few lessons as a child, but there wasn’t…” Elizabeth shifted as they left Teddy’s stall and went down to where a light-colored horse rested in the next stall. “But there wasn’t much of a reason to keep going, I guess. Ladies didn’t really ride for fun where I grew up, and certainly not for travel—”
“This is Ruby,” Jason said. “A palomino. Gentle. She’s not a carriage horse,” he added, “and I—” He hesitated. “She was my sister’s horse. After…we sold off a lot of family’s horses we kept in town, but I couldn’t—”
“No, of course not.” Elizabeth’s heart ached as she watched the grief roll through him. It wasn’t the first time she’d watched it sneak up on him, and she thought maybe Teddy had been named for the grandfather lost—hadn’t his name been Edward? “I’d be honored to learn to ride on Ruby.”
Her attention was drawn by a bang and some thudding in the back. Jason hissed as he turned just as a horse reared in his stall and kicked at the door. It held firm, but shook—Elizabeth stepped back, her eyes wide.
“Johnny, what the hell—” Jason bit out as he strode away from Elizabeth towards the stable hand in front of the stall.
“Can’t get that bastard to settle,” Johnny O’Brien said with a grimace. He spat onto the ground next to him. “Should let him run out into the paddock. Work off some of that energy—”
“You’ve been saying that for a week,” Jason retorted, as the horse reared again. “Why the hell did we buy him?”
“Because old man Coleman was an asshole who was killing it,” Johnny offered with as a shrug. “Pardon,” he said absently as Elizabeth came up behind Jason—but kept some distance, her gaze trained on the bucking, nearly wild horse in the stall. His coat was dark, nearly a glossy black, the mane of almost matching hair—and panicked, crazed eyes.
“Elizabeth,” Jason began with a wince. “Maybe we should do this another day—”
“He looks so scared,” she said almost more to herself. “What happened to him?”
“Last owner liked the whip. Wants to see him win some races—”
“Races—” Elizabeth blinked, looked at Jason. “I didn’t realize that races were popular out here.”
“Not the same way they are back in East or in Europe, but there’s a market for racehorses.” Jason sighed. “But Coleman was heavy on the whip after Dusty lost.”
“Dusty?” Elizabet wrinkled her name. “That’s a terrible name. For him, anyway,” she added. And then she stepped around Jason, drawing a step closer to the stallion. “That’s like naming your dog Rabbit. He’s beautiful, you know. Should have named him Thunder or Lightening. Something to match—”
“Elizabeth—” Jason began, but then something strange happened. Dusty stopped bucking against the door, turned his long head towards the new voice. He whinnied.
“Oh, he’s one of those,” Johnny said with a scowl. “Sucker for a lady’s voice—” And jumped back when the horse made a motion at the stable hand that could only be described as scowling. “Do it again, missus.”
“Do what?” Elizabeth said.
“Talk. You got that fancy voice—”
“Johnny—” Jason began.
“Fancy?” Elizabeth echoed. “I wouldn’t describe it that way, but I suppose I have a bit of an accent—” Then closed her mouth as Dusty once again settled. Her eyes were wide. “Did I do that?”
“Here—” Johnny shoved a discarded newspaper into her hands. “Just read it out loud.”
“All right—” She glanced down at the small print. “Taxpayers are reminded that only fifteen days remain in which they can pay their taxes without costs. It is better to take advantage of of the heavy discount—”
“I’ll be damned,” Jason murmured as she continued reading and Dusty’s entire demeanor changed. The horse settled down, and slowly his heaving sides returned to normal, steady, rises and falls.
“It’s like he’s looking at me,” Elizabeth said, folding the newspaper. She handed it to Johnny, stepped closer, lifting her hand to gently rest it on the side of Dusty’s head. The horse’s ears flicked and there was soft whinny.
“Uh, do you know anything about working horses?” Johnny wanted to know. “Because I’m thinking that me and Jase can’t sound like that.”
“No,” Elizabeth said, continuing to stroke the smooth, glossy coat. “No,” she repeated, but looked at Jason. “But I could learn, couldn’t I? Women can do that.”
“Yeah.” He smiled at her. “Yeah, you could learn to do that.”
Elizabeth beamed, then looked back at the stallion. Maybe she could make a place for herself here on ranch, too. “I don’t want to wait until spring to learn how to ride.”
The July sun was high above them, but Jason was content to stand in the middle of the paddock, watching with a mixture of pride and bewilderment as Elizabeth held a leading string attached to Dusty, the wild stallion who refused to let anyone else work with him except his wife.
Two weeks into putting her to work in the stables, Elizabeth took to horses like she’d been born to it — and the stallion had fallen in love with her—would follow her anywhere, Jason thought. She’d still have to learn to ride on Ruby, he reflected, but there was no way he was putting Dusty back on the racing circuit when the only human he seemed to be interested in was Elizabeth.
“All right, he needs to wind down and take some water—” Jason began, but Elizabeth seemed a step head ahead of him, tugging on the lead to have Dusty slowing down. Then she led him over to the trough of water where he drank thirstily.
Elizabeth patted the horse at the shoulder, careful to keep away from his rear—the first lesson he’d taught her. “He’s doing such a great job, isn’t he?”
“Better than the entire first week he spent here. Should have brought you out to the stables on day one.” Jason folded his arms, studied her. Her brown hair was tied up in some sort of twist, with tendrils sticking to her cheeks and neck with sweat from the heat of the summer day. The shirtwaist had begun the day as white but was now streaked with dirt and damp in areas from more sweat. Her fair skin was bright red, a streak of mud slashing across a cheek, her blue eyes sparkling.
He’d never seen a woman who looked more beautiful.
“I wish we could do something for the whip scars,” Elizabeth murmured, touching the spots gently on the side of Dusty’s belly. “He didn’t deserve any of this.”
“No. But they’ll be a memory of how far he’s come. That’s all scars are, really—”
She glanced down to her hands, ungloved with dirt staining her nails, the missing tip of her index finger with its own snaky thin white scars in her skin. Elizabeth met his eyes, then smiled again. “Just a mark of where he’s been, right? Nothing more.”
“Nothing more.” He leaned down and captured her mouth with his. When he drew back, her cheeks flushed for a new reason, Jason saw Alice coming down from the house, Cameron skipping alongside. They reached the paddock fence, Cameron’s eyes wide at the sight of the horse.
“He woke up from a nap,” Alice said, lifting Cameron up a step so he stood on the bottom rung of the fence. “Wanted his parents.”
“Hey—” Jason lifted the little boy into his arms and over the fence. Elizabeth bit her lip, glancing nervously at the horse. Dusty was warming up to Jason because he was always with her, but would the horse sense the fragileness of the child?
“Big horse.” Cameron wrapped arms tightly around Jason’s neck. “Big.”
“Big, but not scary.” Jason stroked Cameron’s back. “Watch Mama.”
Elizabeth touched Dusty’s head, scratching just beneath his ears, and the horse made a happy sound, exhaling almost like a sigh of delight. “Come try,” she told her son. Jason came closer and laid Cameron’s hand just beneath Elizabeth’s. To his relief and Cameron’s excitement, the horse just leaned into the little boy’s touch.
“Soft,” Cameron said. “Can I ride?”
“Oh, no. Not yet. Not this one,” Elizabeth said.
“No, you’ll learn on a pony,” Jason said, tightening his arms slightly around the little boy as he thought of how often he’d been thrown while learning to ride. How he’d broken bones—then he relaxed and smiled at Cameron—at his son. “But you’ll learn. Just like Mama.”
“Oh, good.” Cameron leaned his head against Jason’s shoulder. “Horse smells, Papa.” His nose wrinkled up. “Oh, big smell.”
Elizabeth clapped a hand over her nose, stepping away from the stallion as Jason grinned. Elizabeth still hadn’t learned how to handle the, uh, less delicate areas of working with horses—there were no chamber pots or outhouses.
“You wanna learn how to do take care of that?” Jason added, nodding to the large pile that had dropped from the horse’s rear.
Elizabeth made a face. “No. I really don’t.”
He shook his head. “Go put him back in the stall,” he told Elizabeth. “Cameron and I will take care of it.”
“We will?” Cameron asked dubiously as Elizabeth happily led the stallion away, grateful to be given reprieve. “Bad smell, Papa,” he informed Jason as he was set on his feet as soon as Dusty was out of the paddock.
“Part of the job. You want to learn how to ride a horse one day, you need to learn how to care for them.” It was going to be fun, Jason decided, teaching his family how to live out on the ranch. He could hardly wait.