The Cart Before the Corpse
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by Carolyn McSparren
Description: A jealous woman? A rival trainer? Or one of his deceptively downhome Mossy Creek neighbors? Someone took famed horseman Hiram Lackland for his last carriage ride, and now it's up to his daughter, Merry Abbott, to pin the tail on the right donkey, crime-wise. Hitch your imagination to Book One of THE MERRY ABBOT CARRIAGE-DRIVING SERIES, set in the world of competitive carriage driving--an elegant yet cut-throat realm in which gorgeously costumed drivers and their magnificently harnessed horses vie for championships in the challenging obstacle course of the show ring. "Then I saw I was kneeling in a pool of blood still seeping into the barn floor from under his head." I nearly collapsed. My father's landlord, Peggy Caldwell, had now gone to the far side of 'Way Too Much Information.' Trying to steady my dizzy brain, I retreated to a very polite mental tearoom and found myself thinking, bizarrely, Poor woman. Must have been terrible for her. Peggy looked me straight in the eyes. "That's when I knew he'd been murdered." Carolyn McSparren is an avid horsewoman and an award-winning romance and women's fiction author who now brings her talent to the mystery genre. She created mystery maven Peggy Caldwell for the long-running Mossy Creek Hometown series, and now, in THE MERRY ABBOTT CARRIAGE-DRIVING SERIES, Peggy joins new Creekite Merry Abbott in solving crimes. Carolyn lives near Memphis, Tennessee, where she owns and shows several carriage horses. Visit her at www.carolynmcsparren.com
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/BelleBooks, 2009 Trade Papperback
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [421 KB]
Reading time: 254-356 min.
Sunday Afternoon, Chattanooga, Tennessee
I should learn to count chickens instead of eggs.
I'd already packed my computer and printer in my truck and checked out of my motel. The scores were posted on all the driving classes except the cross-country marathon. As show manager, I'd passed out ribbons and trophies. Once the marathon ended and the scores were tallied, I could drive away from the horseshow grounds with a happy grin and a fat check.
That's when I heard the screams. "Runaway!" I turned and raced across the field toward the start of the marathon course. When the screams continued, I knew this was more than a loose trace.
Please God some nervous horse had yanked his lead line from his groom and wandered off to graze, or decided he didn't feel like being harnessed to his carriage today and trotted away dragging his reins and harness behind him.
Just so long as he wasn't also dragging a carriage.
A runaway horse harnessed to a driverless carriage is a four-legged missile with no guidance system.
I was still fifty yards from the start of the marathon course when I saw Jethro, Pete and Tully Hull's Morgan stallion, kick out with both hind feet and connect with the steel dashboard of their heavy marathon cart with a God-awful clang. Terrified, Jethro reared straight up in his traces and tossed both Pete and Tully off the carriage and into the dirt.
"He's going over backwards!" somebody screamed.
Amy Hull, Pete and Tully's thirteen-year-old daughter, clung to the back of the carriage. Her normal job was as counterbalance around fast turns. Now, she was trying to keep both Jethro and the carriage from landing on top of her.
"Jump and roll, Amy!" I shouted. "Get out of the way!"
She jumped, landed on her feet and rolled away from the carriage. With less weight to overbalance him, Jethro came down solidly on all fours, Thank God.
But then he took off at a dead run across the field, with the carriage careening wildly after him.
Still screaming warnings, some people ran to help the Hulls. Competitors stamped on their carriage brakes and reined their own horses in hard to keep the course from erupting into a re-run of the chariot race in Ben Hur. Poor Jethro was terrified. With the eighteen-foot reins flying behind him, the carriage had become his personal banshee. He had to escape it if it killed him.
It might. As well some of the rest of us, horses, competitors, trainers and spectators alike, if we didn't stop him. And nobody else was trying. Everybody not rushing to help the Hulls dove out of the way, cowered behind trucks and horse vans, huddled in the tents with the food and the vendors and prayed that Jethro wouldn't decide to charge them.
Jethro weighed three quarters of a ton. The steel marathon carriage weighed only slightly less. The horse had become a runaway eighteen-wheeler with four legs and a terrified brain.
He craved sanctuary. He was desperate to find his people so they could get the monster off his tail. He didn't know he'd left them behind in the dirt. Somehow I had to focus his attention on me, let him know that one human being wanted to save him from the monster that chased him.
He swerved past a four-wheeled spider phaeton pulled by a huge black Friesian gelding. Friesians were originally bred to carry Lancelot in full knightly armor, so they're graceful but massive. The axles passed one another with barely room for a single piece of blotting paper between them. Anne Crawford, on the Friesian's reins, stood up and screamed. Her Queen Mary hat with its pheasant tail and orange tulle flew off her head and landed on the Friesian's broad rump. The Friesian kicked at it.
The hat fell in the dirt and the Friesian relaxed, thank the Lord.
Jethro spun through a ninety-degree corner around the stables. The carriage rocked dangerously but righted itself. Then he headed straight for the parking area where over forty trailers and trucks were closely aligned in rows.
I ran to cut Jethro off, waved my arms and yelled to get his attention in hopes he'd be so startled he'd pull up or swerve away before he reached the narrow lanes between the vehicles.
He knew how wide his body was, and that he could fit between the trailers and trucks. He didn't have a clue how wide the carriage behind him was. If it stuck hard, he'd be yanked up on a dime. The steel carriage might disintegrate.
Jethro could break his neck. Carriages are replaceable. Jethro was not.
Jethro galloped straight at me. Behind him the carriage caromed from side to side and clanged as it side-swiped trailers and trucks like the steel ball in a pinball machine.
At the last minute, I dove between a silver dually and a bright red Ford Two-Fifty truck as Jethro thundered by, still pursued by his invisible banshee. If he even noticed me, he darned well didn't care. I wasn't one of his people. He headed for the access road, the only paved road on the farm the road that cars and trucks drove on--cars and trucks that might collide head-on with Jethro.
I sprinted across the field in front of the stable. If I could get ahead of him ... He came out from between the final pair of horse trailers and swerved onto the road as I reached it.
Without warning, his aluminum shoes slipped on the paving, and all four feet flew out from under him. He crashed onto his side and tipped the carriage. His sharp hooves flailed the air.
I knew he'd start struggling to his feet in about ten seconds. I did the only thing I could do. I yanked off my jacket, tossed it over his head, sat on his neck and leaned both hands on his shoulder.
The minute I covered his eyes and he felt my weight, Jethro relaxed. He was drenched with sweat, his sides heaved, and every muscle trembled, but in his mind the banshee wasn't after him any longer, although I could still hear the wheels spinning behind him. I didn't dare turn to look.
"Somebody undo the girth! Unhook the tugs and the traces!" I shouted over my shoulder. "Get this carriage off him!" He shivered and struggled, but quieted when I spoke to him gently and caressed his sweaty neck.
"You're okay, sweetie," I whispered. I could recite nursery rhymes so long as my voice stayed calm and my hands caressed his neck. He trusted that I could free him of the banshee. Behind me, I heard people shouting, calling for knives to cut the harness free. Careful to keep his eyes covered, I rocked Jethro up on his shoulder just far enough to allow the steel shaft under him to be pulled free, then pressed his head down once more onto the pavement. A minute later, both shafts slid backward away from the horse. I couldn't take my eyes off him, but I could hear people grunting as they shifted the weight of the carriage. I kept stroking and talking.
After what seemed like an eternity I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Merry, we've got the carriage up and the harness free. Time to get him up." My heart lurched. So long as Jethro stayed quiet under me, so long as he didn't scramble to his feet and try to walk, we didn't have to assess his injuries.
I didn't want to know. If he'd broken a leg...
The first thing you learn around horses is how fragile they are in mind and body. You protect them and care for them as well as you can. Sometimes that's not enough, but it's the job we sign on for. They can't take care of themselves. I'd tried to help Jethro, but I had no idea whether I'd been successful.
"Merry, I'm going to haul you back away from him on your butt. Don't want you catching a hoof in the head when he tries to stand." I felt strong hands under my armpits. I knew the voice. Jack, the Johnsons' groom. Probably strong enough to lift Jethro if he had to. He swung me away and to my feet as though I weighed about as much as a little Jack Russell Terrier, then dropped a heavy brown arm across my shoulders and turned me against his chest. Behind me I heard Jethro's hooves scrabbling. "He's up, Merry. You can look."
I felt Jethro's warm breath against my neck as I faced him and leaned my shoulder against his. "Please be okay," I whispered. Jack hooked a hand on his bridle, but Jethro was too worn out to go anywhere. The stallion took a tentative step, snorted once to frighten any residue of banshee away, then took two more steps. He walked 'dead sound,' meaning without injury, in civilian terms. He was bleeding from a couple of shallow cuts on his shoulder, probably from collisions with the fenders of trailers. He'd scraped himself a bit from the asphalt on the road, but the damage was minor. A few stitches, a little Betadine antiseptic, and he'd be fine. Amazing that he hadn't ripped a leg tendon on the fender of a truck or gashed himself to the bone on a trailer door.
"Merry, honey," Jack said, "Idn't that your good leather jacket?"
I looked down. It was the only thing I'd had to toss over Jethro's head. He now stood with his front hooves squarely in the middle of four hundred bucks worth of tan suede.
"It's okay," I said and laid my cheek against Jethro's dark brown neck. "What on earth happened?"
Jack pointed toward the railroad tracks that ran along the far side of the fence by the road. "You know how you told 'em not to set the first leg of the marathon so close to the train track?"
I nodded. "But thirty or forty trains have rattled by in the last two days. The horses couldn't have cared less. The show committee said I was crazy to worry."
"Uh-huh," Jack continued. I watched his enormous hands flex into fists. "The dumbass engineer on that last freight must-a decided it'd be cute to blow his whistle as long and loud as he could just when he got even with Jethro. Shoot, like to scared me half to death. No wonder Jethro spooked. If I ever find out that devil's name..."
Looking at Jack's face, I prayed for the engineer's sake that Jack never would find out his name. Jack was the kindest, gentlest man I knew until you messed with his horses. Then it was a thermonuclear explosion. I once saw him pick up an incompetent fill-in farrier at a horse show up by the scruff of his neck and toss him halfway down the barn aisle. The farrier had driven a nail straight into the quick of a mare's hoof, then went right on shoeing her after she thrashed and squealed. Frankly, I thought Jack had been extremely forbearing. I'd probably have cracked the man over the head with his hammer.
"Are the Hulls okay?" I asked. I'd been so busy worrying about Jethro, I hadn't given his drivers a thought.
"Tully's got a broken wrist and Amy's got a scraped chin. Other than maybe fifty thousand dollars worth of damage to vehicles and trailers, everybody's just fine, including Jethro. Thanks to you," Jack said.
Jethro still stood in the middle of my jacket, but there wasn't much point in moving him now. I doubted Pete Hull's insurance would include a new one. "I haven't run that hard since I was in high school." I leaned over and put my hands on my knees to steady my breathing. I'm well past thirty, although I don't generally let on just how well. I do have a daughter out of college, however, and though I'm in good shape, jogging in the park hadn't prepared me for running flat-out over a rutted hay field. It's a miracle I didn't trip, fall flat on my face and break my ankle. "Thank the Lord I didn't have to run any farther. Like to have killed me. Pure luck I caught him."
"And guts," Jack said and shook his head. "The insurance companies are going to have a field day on this one."
"Hey, girl, you're a hero!" Pete Hull trotted up and smacked me on the shoulder.
"Just lucky, Pete. Y'all okay?"
"Gonna be. I told those idiots on the show committee we were asking for trouble to run the first leg of the marathon that close to the railroad track."
Still, it was easier to blame me, only a hired hand, after all, as the show manager, than to blame the show committee or the paying customers. Somehow I'd wind up carrying the can for the accident. Although it's a rule that drivers wear hard hats during the marathon, a number of the old guard still grumbled.
They all refused to wear hard hats during the other classes, although the rules say that no one can ever be penalized for choosing to wear one. The ladies preferred their summer straw hats festooned with feathers and ribbons. The men wanted their top hats and bowlers. Elegant, but those wouldn't protect their skulls in case of a runaway like Jethro's. The show committee would be after me to talk and talk and talk about whose fault Jethro's escapade was. If I hadn't needed my check, I would have run for my truck and ducked them. But I needed the money, even if I didn't get the accompanying smile and pat on the back for a job well done.
"Will you go with me to see the head of the show committee?" I asked Pete.
Before he could answer, my cell phone rang. I dragged it out of the pocket of my jeans and answered it, grateful for the interruption.
"Ms Abbott? Merideth Lackland Abbott?" an unfamiliar voice said. Male, heavy southern accent.
"No easy way to say this, Mrs. Abbott. I'm afraid your father has met with an accident."
I grabbed Jack's arm. "Hiram? What happened? Is he all right?"
"Um, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid he's dead."
The next thing I knew I was sitting on the ground while Jack shoved my head down between my knees. That was when I threw up.