Monday, December 10, 2012
“Well?” Sarah said after finally swallowing. “Are you going to say something, or are you just going to sit there and brood?”
“I’m not brooding. I’m pensive. Is pensiving a word?”
“It is if we say it is. What are you pensiving about? All the empty seats? Or that cowboy who wouldn’t stop staring at you in New Mexico?”
“That horse I bought in Montana. The Arabian.”
“Sinbad? He’s the only one you’ve used in the last eight performances. Is something wrong with him?”
“God, I hope not. He’s the smartest horse I’ve ever worked with. Half those tricks he does are new to me. That bit in Taos, where he sat like a dog and tried to wear my hat? I don’t know where he learned that. I sure didn’t teach it to him.”
“Funny bit. The kids ate it up. I thought I’d bust my buckskins, I was laughing so hard.”
“Glad you liked it. It was all ad-lib. I’ve worked with horses since I could reach a stirrup. Trust me, Sarah, horses don’t ad-lib.”
“So he was a trick horse before. It was probably part of a former act. Didn’t the guy you bought him from say he was a performer?”
“Not exactly.” Once again Mel reviewed the conversation in her mind. She’d been doing that a lot since she’d started working with “Sinbad.” “He said he wanted to be a performer. It was always a dream of his.”
“The seller or the horse?”
“That’s the problem. The way he worded it, I’m not really sure. Then there’s the other thing. Sinbad’s smart, like I said, and he’s the sweetest-tempered animal I’ve ever had under me. But sometimes he—he likes it kind of … rough.”
Sarah leaned forward. “How so?”
“We’ll be rehearsing and he’ll start acting up. Not bucking or anything. I don’t think he knows how to buck. But he’ll do a stunt wrong after four or five times straight without a hitch. Then he … looks at me. Like he wants me to punish him. Every time I carry a whip or a quirt he perks up, even if I don’t use it on him. He likes the saddle girth nice and tight. One time I hobbled him and I swear to God he sighed.”
“Maybe he was abused as a colt. Maybe bad treatment’s all he knows.” Sarah smiled around her enchilada. “This sounds right up your alley. You’ve been needing a new project. Well, here he is. Knock yourself out.”
“I don’t know. There’s something about him. Something not … horsey.” She leaned across the little formica table and whispered, “I think he’s into bondage.”
# # #
The last hand left the fairground stables. Niles still looked around carefully before he shifted. He unlatched the stall door and stepped barefoot onto the straw-strewn ground, deftly avoiding the “offerings” his truehorse cousins had bestowed on the stable floor. The horses muttered nervously and withdrew into their stalls. Unlike the equines of Talbot’s Peak, this bunch wasn’t used to shapeshifters. For the moment Niles was content to let them leave him alone.
Niles was content, period. At twenty-six he’d finally found the guts, ditched his dull office routine, and run away and joined the circus like he’d always dreamed. Or the Wild West rodeo show, in this case. When the show had passed through Talbot’s Peak he’d been captivated by the trick horses and their sparkly bridles and trappings. Show biz sang to him. His forebears had been rodeo buckers, circus mounts and performers in ‘50s TV Westerns. Acting ran in his blood.
When the woman trick rider went looking around to buy a fresh horse for her act, Niles saw his chance. He had no trouble persuading his cousin—or maybe half-brother once removed; the same stallion had bred both their granddams—Ed to “sell” him to her. The minute he felt her confident seat and firm hands on the reins, he knew he’d found his rider. And maybe something more.
He padded across the stable to the tack hung on the wall. He reverently fingered the butter-soft bridles, the smooth leather saddles, the rough rawhide whips. Where he’d picked up his taste for discipline, he had no idea. He loved the thought of training, the more intense, the better. Those smutty films he’d made for cousin Ed had only whetted his appetite. He needed an actual rider. He needed it to be real.
Horselike, he snorted. Real, right. The human thought she’d bought some Arabian trick horse. Melanie was too nice and honest a girl to be lied to. Dare he risk revealing himself? This wasn’t Talbot’s Peak, where shifters were the norm. How would Melanie react if she found out her “horse” had a human side? If he told her, he could lose everything.
On the other hoof, he stood to gain everything he ever wanted.
He scented her seconds before he heard her approach. Nerves won out over honesty. By the time Melanie entered the stable, Niles was a horse again. He whickered a greeting to her even as he shook his mane over his own cowardice. Next time. Next time for sure.
She hurried over to him. “Sinbad! What are you doing out of your stall? You bad boy.” She lightly slapped his shoulder. He nuzzled hers in return. “Did you figure out how to work the latch? You’re way too smart for your own good. I’m going to have to start tying you up.”
“Sinbad” nodded eagerly. Melanie frowned. Too damn smart by a good long throw, and with odd habits to boot. “I could swear you understand every word I’m saying. Hey! You want to go for a gallop?”
Again with the nod. Well, “gallop” should be in every trained horse’s vocabulary. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Melanie tugged on his mane. He knelt on one knee for an easy mount. She swung expertly onto his bare back and swore he shivered with excitement. The sound he made when she clapped her heels to his flanks could have been a moan.
What an odd animal. But smart. One of the best she’d ever ridden in the ring. At her urging he bolted out of the stable and carried them both into the bright Nevada sunshine.