Lost Loves by Joyce Reynolds-Ward

“Whoa,” I breathed, sitting down hard in my saddle so that Sox’s velocity wouldn’t toss me three feet into the air as he went from a full hard gallop to a twenty-foot-long sliding stop. It was his best one yet. I eased the reins and let the big red gelding walk around the arena on a long rein so he would relax and air up.

Getting into the warmup arena first thing in the morning to iron out any kinks Sox might have had before the show was my best strategy for winning with him at the Classic. Work the old boy hard, tune up his moves, then put him away. By mid-afternoon, when our class was scheduled, all I’d have to do was lope a few circles and Sox would be good to go without risking running him into the ground. His owner would be thrilled at any ribbon Sox picked up here and it’d be another score for my nonexistent promotional campaign. I’d lost a lot of heart for it over the past six months.

I leaned forward and rubbed Sox’s neck. “Good ol’ fella.” He flicked an ear back at me but kept marching around the rail with that going-somewhere walk he had, ignoring the other horses running down the center, loping circles, or practicing spins. Even when a young sorrel filly stampeded by us—her eyes wide as she bolted, her amateur owner desperately yanking at the snaffle bit in the filly’s mouth—Sox held his ground.

Then suddenly he stopped sharp, throwing his head high and snorting.

“What the—Sox! Get up there!” I tapped him with my spurs but he ignored me, his nostrils flaring wide as his breathing went harsh and ragged. I tried to see what had rattled the old boy, but couldn’t identify it at first—then I saw her. Them. A big dark bay mare with tall white stockings on her hind legs walking away from us, led by a barefooted tall brunette wearing a sleeveless black evening gown. Even as out of place as she was, no one else seemed to notice the pair. It was almost as if they were really there, shades from last year.

What the—?

Sox nickered plaintively as horse and woman disappeared through the arena wall. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. No one. I urged Sox forward, and he started out slow, pausing after each step for five strides, then rushing forward in a quick walk with his head high instead of level like he usually did. We reached the space where the woman and the horse had disappeared into the wall and Sox stopped. He nuzzled the wall twice, then repeated his mournful whicker. I urged him forward. We didn’t need this kind of distraction before the show started, even if it were a mutual delusion.

I’d have thought I was crazy if it hadn’t been for Sox’s reaction. Even from behind there was no mistaking who that had been.

Blythe and Queenie. But they’re—

I didn’t want to think about that. Especially not after last year’s triumph. I’ve tried to harden myself over the years, even be proud when one of the horses I’ve started makes it to the Worlds, or the Snaffle Bit, or one of the other big reining shows like the Classic. After all, when you’re a small-timer in the big-money horse show world like I am, you have to expect to lose horses and riders to bigger name trainers with the experience to take them to the next level.

It hurts one hell of a lot more when they get into a truck wreck on their way to leaving you for that Next Big Name.

I dismounted and led Sox from the warmup arena. I’d just as soon cool him out walking through the barn aisles. Maybe then we could both forget about that illusion we’d both seen. Sure wouldn’t do us any good to keep on working. I wasn’t in the mindset to focus and Sox clearly wasn’t in the mood either.

Besides, I decided I might as well clean tack and make sure we were ready to go that afternoon.

***

“Ya looked a little shook up out there in the practice pen this morning, Joni B,” Donnie Martin stopped in front of me while I checked the latigo on Sox’s saddle as it sat on my battered black saddle stand in the alleyway outside his stall. “Ol’ Sox getting feisty in his senior days?”

I shrugged and dropped the stirrup back down, straightening up. “Must have been a bit of indigestion on my part. Sox is—Sox.” I wasn’t going to talk about how my reliable campaigner of a gelding had been sulking in the back of his stall before I brought him out, occasionally coming up to grab a bite from the hay net before going into the back corner to brood. The only other time he had acted like this was the day Blythe loaded Queenie into Martin’s trailer. Two hours later, he had started screaming and kicking the walls of his stall, just before Cindy called to tell me about the wreck.

I hoped we weren’t headed for a repeat performance. I’d strung Sox’s cooler blanket over the bars to his stall to give him some peace and quiet.

Martin cleared his throat uneasily. “Joni B. I’ve gotta talk.”

I circled around my saddle, turning my back to him, polishing away a nearly-invisible speck of dust. “Nothin’ to talk about, is there?”

Nothing except that you killed Blythe and Queenie because you couldn’t stay off the damn pills, I thought.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” I turned to face him. “She chose you over me. I warned her but she didn’t listen.”

His face twisted. “I thought you knew. I got those pills from Blythe.”

My fists clenched. “Liar.” But my gut tightened. What if he was right? I’d thought Blythe had been drinking when she showed up to collect Queenie. Maybe she hadn’t been drinking. “In any case, Queenie didn’t deserve it.”

Martin swallowed hard. “Yeah. You’re right about that.” He looked down at his feet, then back up. “That’s what I remember from the wreck. Queenie screaming before the vet got there.”

“What do you want from me, Martin?” For prudence’s sake, I went back to the other side of the saddle so I wouldn’t be tempted to take a swing at him. “If it’s forgiveness, that’s gonna take a while. If you’re going to promise not to steal another client under false pretenses, then maybe I’ll listen.”

“I—I need a favor. I need someone to take over my string.” He looked away from me again. “I meet with the sanctions committee on Monday. It looks like at least a year’s suspension.”

“I see.” I wondered how severe his suspension would be. Most likely he’d be banned from attending any show as owner, trainer, rider, or even spectator. Besides the drug use behind the wreck that had killed Blythe and Queenie, I’d heard…things about how Martin behaved with underage female riders. And I’d had a few questions about how his horses moved sometimes. Not saying they were doped, but—

At least Queenie hadn’t been put through that experience.

“Would you do it?” He looked at me now with a shy sideways smile, giving me that patented Donnie Martin half-begging, half-cute look.

“Depends. Am I just a trainer of record or do I get complete control, including those horses in my barn?”

Martin winced. “I can’t afford that.”

“I won’t do it any other way.” I rested my hand on the saddle’s cantle. “Either I get complete control with those horses in my barn and no whisper of you, or it’s no go. You aren’t bringing me down with you by doing this the underhanded way.”

Martin shook his head. “Can’t you do it for Blythe’s sake?”

“Are you joking?” My voice rose and I slapped the saddle seat with both hands. “You dare to bring Blythe into this? You dare!”

I would have said more but Sox kicked the stall wall.

“Blythe would have wanted you to do it,” he said, a sick look on his face.

“And Blythe left me for you,” I hissed. “You get your behind away from my space. Now.”

Sox kicked the wall again to emphasize my point.

“Blythe was a real woman,” Martin sneered. “Not like you. I could tell you what she said about you as a trainer. As a lover.”

“Get. Out. Of. My. Barn,” I snarled back. “You’re upsetting my horse!” My voice rose again, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kenny Wheaton. The guy who had started me in reining horses, the mentor I usually shared a stall row with at shows, strode down the aisle toward us. Kenny had no love for Martin.

“As if you could win with that thing!” Martin growled as Kenny came close and Sox kicked the wall a third time.

“You need a hand cleaning out the trash, Joni B?” Kenny asked.

“I think he’s leaving this barn,” I said, glaring at Martin as he backed away from us.

After he reached a safe distance, Martin stopped. “You’ll regret that choice, Joni B. Mark my words, you’ll regret it!”

He turned and stomped away.

Kenny shook his head. “What’s going on?”

I let out a deep breath. “He wanted me to take over his string as a proxy for him. I told him no, and,” I paused, then went the rest of the way. “He tried to claim Blythe would have wanted me to do it.”

“That SOB.” Kenny frowned after Martin while I went into the stall and checked on Sox. He was pacing, sweating a little on his neck. I pulled the cooler down and tossed it over him. He lowered his head for me to scratch his poll, calming as I stood next to him.

“That’s not all. He blamed Blythe for the pills,” I said, my voice low and choked. “Kenny. Was I not seeing things?”

Kenny hesitated. That was enough to tell me the truth. At last he spoke, his voice low and troubled, “I’m not really sure who started it, Joni B. Whether she was into those pills before she hooked up with Donnie, or if he got her into them.”

I closed my eyes, then buried my head in Sox’s neck. “How long do you think she was taking them?” I asked, Sox’s mane muffling my words as I fought back tears.

“Since the Worlds,” Kenny said, moving to stand in the stall’s doorway.

It made sense. Queenie and I had won the pro division at Worlds, but Blythe and Queenie had washed out horribly in the non-pro division. We’d had a screaming fight about it, because she’d not done one single thing I had coached her to do, jerking and yanking on Queenie instead.

This mare is too talented for you to screw up by being a heavy-handed idiot! I had screamed at Blythe.

And just who the hell owns her? Blythe yelled back. Maybe you’ve coached her to the point that she won’t win for anyone but you! That’s what Donnie says.

Kenny’s hand fell on my shoulder. “You were right then. You’re right now. That SOB,” his voice trailed away and he cleared his throat. “Joni B. He’s sabotaging you. Getting you and your horse riled up. You’re better than this, better than letting him play with your head like he is.”

I straightened up and exhaled a deep sigh. “I know, Kenny. I know. It’s just—well—it’s hard. Here.”

Last year, the three of us had won the Classic. Me and Queenie in the pro division; Blythe and Queenie in the non-pro, her first year up from the Amateur Owner division. Kenny and his wife, Annette, had taken us out for dinner and drinks afterward. It had been the last time the four of us had gone out together to celebrate the big win.

It was after those wins at the Classic that Donnie Martin seriously started pursuing Blythe. Shortly after that, she started to lose her touch. I spent more time fixing Queenie every time Blythe rode her, rebuilding Queenie’s confidence after Blythe bullied her around the arena. I wondered now if Blythe had started sneaking Donnie in to supervise some of her training rides when I wasn’t around.

Three months after the Worlds, after an even more disastrous schooling show and a screaming fight between us, Blythe showed up at the barn with Martin. She wore no shoes and the slinky black dress she favored when not at the barn. The first I knew of her presence was when she came over to the gate.

I’m firing you, Joni B, she had called across the arena in her ringing, clear voice. Payment in full in the envelope, along with my apartment key. I’ve moved my things out. I’m taking Queenie now.

I’d galloped Sox up to the gate and sent dirt flying past Blythe as he slid to a stop. She didn’t flinch. Sox had taught Blythe the reining basics before she bought Queenie. She knew he’d send dirt flying but not blow through the gate.

What the hell are you doing, Blythe? I demanded. Are you drunk or something?

I told you last night we were done. She laughed. Then Blythe turned away and went to Queenie’s stall. Before I could dismount and slip a halter on Sox to stick him in the crossties, they were gone, walking down the barn aisle. Sox nickered after Queenie, unusually upset by his barn buddy walking away from him.

My last sight of them was Queenie and Blythe walking down the driveway toward the gate. Queenie walked calmly, head low, following Blythe like the good horse she was. Blythe staggered a couple of times, but she otherwise moved with the undulating grace that had first caught my eye.

They went through the gate and out of sight.

I had cooled Sox out and put him up. He had been fussy for a couple of hours and I hung around the barn, worrying that he was colicking.

Then he had screamed, double-barreled the wall, and the phone rang.

Joni B. This is Cindy. Blythe’s sister. Her voice quavered, There’s been an accident.

Kenny’s hand tightened on my shoulder and he shook me, bringing me out of my memories.

“Joni B. Don’t let him get to you. You two get out there this afternoon and win. Show that bastard what a worthless piece of crap he is.”

I gulped and looked up at Kenny, blinking back tears. “I—I don’t know. Sox is off, and we saw—oh hell, I think I saw their ghosts here.”

“Win it,” he repeated. “For Blythe. For Queenie. For all of us.” He gave me another shake. “We all get screwed over by an owner at some point.” His voice hardened, “You can do it. Sox can do it. Just get your head in the game and whip his tiny little ass. Show that yayhoo that a girl can ride better than him.”

I sniffled, then gave Kenny a weak grin. “That’s one hell of a pep talk, Wheaton.”

He dropped his hand. “Whatever bullshit he thinks about Blythe, I figure she’d want you to kick his ass if she were still around.”

“Maybe.”

“Look. She would have come to her senses. Even with the pills. Annette said Blythe told her she had doubts. Then Donnie Martin would ply her with more booze and drugs when she showed doubt.”

“It’s a stroke of luck that he’s on his way to suspension.”

“So don’t let him win today. You want revenge? Here’s your chance. Okay?” Kenny gently put two fingers under my chin and lifted it so that I met his eyes. “He screwed you over. He stole your love and caused her death. Don’t let him go out a winner.”

I swallowed hard. “I won’t.”

“Good girl.” He dropped his hand and gave me a quick side hug and patted Sox’s butt. He started out of the stall, then stopped in the doorway to face me.

“You aren’t the only one who sees ghosts here,” he said.

Before I could ask Kenny what he meant by that, he was gone.

***

I got Sox calmed down again, but by then it was time to saddle him. I had to wonder if Martin had meant to get Sox riled and edgy.

Forget about it, I told myself, and made myself focus on walking Sox around the warmup arena. I got more nods and smiles from the other trainers than I usually did and had to wonder if Kenny had been talking. Whatever. I’d take some friendly gestures.

I kissed Sox up to a lope and before long he was cantering rhythmically, his breath matching his stride. Hope stirred within me. When Sox started highblowing like this in warmup, it usually meant a good run. He was settling mentally and physically into his routine. We did a couple of rundowns and stops. For the last stop, all I had to do was sit down hard, tighten my belly, and breathe a long “whoa.” Before I even finished the whoa, Sox sat down hard and deep, laying a good slide track and churning up the arena dirt with his forefeet. A light touch on the rein and he practically flew backward. As I stopped the old boy and patted his neck, I heard clapping. I looked over to where it was coming from. A wide grin split Kenny’s face, and the four oldtimer Big Names around him were clapping as well.

“Let’s hope you didn’t just blow out your performance where it doesn’t count,” I muttered to Sox. But as I walked him off on a loose rein, I felt him swagger under me. Old boy sure knew when he had done it right. We got halfway around the arena when suddenly Sox jumped sideways.

“What the hell?” I yelled, even as Martin’s palomino mare skid past us, Martin’s stirrup whacking mine. Sox squealed, pinning his ears and baring his teeth at the mare. “God damn you, Martin!” Oldest trick in the book. Rattle another horse by riding up hard on them. Martin had called it close. Too damn close. Was he trying to hurt his own horse as well as rattle mine?

“Get out of my way!” Martin hollered back.

“You watch where the hell you’re going!”

Kenny galloped up to us, flanked by Bob and Dennis. “We saw that, Martin. Reckless behavior. Jean’s gone to get the steward. No more Classic for you!”

“You son of a bitch!” Martin yanked on the palomino mare’s face. “You’re taking that—that—thing’s side? I can’t believe it!”

Sox tightened under me again, just like he had this morning, throwing his head high and snorting. Martin’s palomino rolled her eyes and jumped twice, while Kenny and Bob’s horses raised their heads and followed Sox’s lead. We all looked to where the horses were gazing. Chills prickled down my arms as I saw the brunette on the big dark bay mare with white hind stockings from this morning, this time in the saddle. Blythe wore the outfit she’d won the Classic in last year. But her expression was cold, hard, and downright mean, her eyes only for Martin. Gentle Queenie’s ears were pinned flat against her head, and the two of them ran hard at him. He spun the palomino and spurred her hard, heading for the back wall.

They couldn’t outrun Queenie. As Queenie and Blythe overtook Martin and the palomino, they faded away. Sox relaxed under me, blowing and then subjecting me to a full-body shake. The other horses dropped their heads, off alert. But Martin and the palomino kept charging at the back wall, almost as if they didn’t see it.

They crashed into the wall.

Kenny tossed me the reins to his stallion and vaulted off, followed by Bob and Dennis. I led all three horses to the other end of the arena, quivering and doing my best not to pass my nerves on to Sox.

“I’m sorry, boy,” I breathed to him. Surely the steward would close the show for the day. Damn it, and he’d felt so great after that rundown! No guarantees existed that he would be as good tomorrow.

Another chill swept over me. I felt the brush of lips on my cheek. Win for me. I’m sorry. I made a huge, stupid mistake. I love you. Sox nickered, and for a moment, I thought I saw Queenie brushing her nostrils against his.

And then the chills went away, and Sox swaggered a little more under me, flicking a warning ear and flashing his teeth at Kenny’s young stallion when the stud boy tried to push into him.

***

To my surprise, classes went on, just delayed. Sox delivered one of the best runs of his career. We won the class but it was close. Kenny’s stud and Bob’s gelding were both tough competitors.

Miraculously, the palomino mare survived, thanks to Kenny and Bob. Martin left the show in an ambulance.

I was cooling Sox out afterward, leading him around the warmup arena with his cooler on and talking to his owner on my cell when Kenny came to check on us. He waited until I hung up and stuck the phone in my pocket before he came over to join us.

“Feeling pretty good to pick up the Classic two years in a row, Joni B?” he asked.

“Got more to live up to,” I said. “But yeah.” I patted Sox’s neck. “Old man still has the chops. Now maybe if it translates into more training horses, I’ll be thrilled.”

“Isn’t that always the case?” Kenny sighed. “Well, you should be able to pick up a few horses from Martin’s string. The report I heard was he broke his pelvis and was raving like he’d lost his mind.” He gave me a knowing look.

“Kenny. Did you really see—?”

“I said you weren’t the only ones to see ghosts here,” he said.

“But how?”

He shrugged. “Years of experience. Look, we want to take you out to dinner. Me, Annette, Bob, and Dennis. You good for that?”

“Let me get the old man tucked into his stall.” I felt under the cooler. Sox was mostly dry, enough that I could brush him up and put his regular blanket on. “Give me an hour to do that and get cleaned up, okay?”

“Will do.” Kenny gave me a quick hug, then headed out. I took Sox back to our barn aisle and crosstied him, pulling off the cooler so I could brush him.

No sooner had I finished brushing and put Sox’s blanket on when I felt that chill yet again, while Sox raised his head. I looked to see Blythe, barefoot and in that black evening dress, holding Queenie’s lead. She blew a kiss at us, then turned Queenie around and they walked away.

They faded away before they reached the door. Sox snorted, shook himself, then nosed me for a treat. I laughed, gave him a cookie, scratched his forehead, and put him back in his stall.

For the first time since the Worlds, I didn’t feel empty and hurt. I still missed Blythe, still missed Queenie, but the anger that had been simmering inside was gone. I couldn’t bring them back. I would always miss them—but it was enough to know that in the end, she could still choose me.

Maybe it was all a shared delusion. All the same, I’d take it. I’d lost both my loves, the woman and the horse, and yet I’d won in the end.

I ambled down the barn aisle with a touch of Sox’s swagger in my step.


Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer who splits her time between Enterprise and Portland, Oregon. Her short stories include appearances in Well…It’s Your Cow, Children of a Different Sky, Allegory, River, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine, as well as on Curious Fictions. Her books include Shadow Harvest, Pledges of Honor (2018 Self Published Fantasy BlogOff Semifinalist), Challenges of Honor, Choices of Honor, and Klone’s Stronghold. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019). Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, skiing, and outdoor activities, and is a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County.