Excerpt: Iron Shoes

IronShoes_KindleFinal (2)Barely visible from the rise was the old tenant’s cottage at the far end of Hawk’s Folly. When Imogen’s mother had come over from England with an infant daughter, a ‘recently dead’ husband, and a single retainer escorting her for the sake of propriety, Mother Hawkes had taken them in and let the mother and daughter live in the cottage. She’d hired Paddy to work in the stables. As a child, Imogen had played there. She would help out with the horses whenever she could escape her mother’s tight grasp. Her mother had other designs, wanting Imogen to be as proper and lady-like as herself. The fourth daughter of an earl, her mother took her consequence seriously.

When her mother died, it had been Mother Hawkes who suggested to Henry that, since he’d been a widower for a couple of years, he could do far worse than to marry the girl from the old cottage. Imogen had always been grateful for his offer, even if she hadn’t loved him. Eighteen and suddenly alone in the world, she hadn’t had any place to go, no family that she knew, and no experience at making a living for herself.

And after Henry’s death it had all fallen on her, every inch of the land, its history and its people. Now with it threatened, she could feel ties binding her there. Not just to the people who worked for her, but the farm itself. It was hers, and she didn’t intend to let it go.

The day was flying by, though. Determined not to waste it, Imogen snapped the reins and the horse trotted down the rise. Once she’d pulled the buggy into the stable yard, one of the hands rushed up to take the reins. Imogen climbed down, grabbed the package of supplies Paddy had requested from the store, and tossed it over by the main stable door for him. She cast a glance in the direction of the stalls but decided to change out of her town clothes first, so she headed up to the wide porch of the house and inside.

Her bedroom was on the second floor with windows overlooking the green roof of the stable and the yard. Tired of living in the shadow of Henry’s first wife, Imogen had repainted the room in a sunny yellow, sold the accumulation of knick-knacks, and purchased new bedding and a rug suited to her own taste—one of the few extravagances she’d allowed herself.

She glanced out her windows and saw Paddy stalking toward the house, so she dashed into the dressing area between the two upstairs bedrooms to change. She stripped off her stained walking suit and pulled on a riding skirt in heavy brown twill and a fresh cream-colored blouse—working clothes, and far more suited to her taste. Then she headed down to find out what Paddy needed.

“They’re forgeries,” Paddy said as soon as she made it down to the sitting room. When annoyed, his accent took on the thick brogue of the old country, but Imogen could usually follow it.

She peered at the sheaf of papers he held up for her to inspect. The new stallion, she realized, her heart sinking. After seeing the horse’s listing for auction in Boston, she’d bid on him sight unseen. His racing record alone should have made him valuable, and she’d been quite surprised when she won him. With the other news she’d gotten this morning, she didn’t want to hear her gamble hadn’t paid off. “Are you certain?”

Paddy ran a hand through his gray hair and settled his tweed cap atop it again. “As sure as the day is long, girl.”

“They raced him under these papers, Paddy.”

“Someone in Boston turned a blind eye, then, something the fine gents in Saratoga aren’t going to do.”

Imogen sighed. She grabbed one of Henry’s old barn coats off the rack near the door. “Well, I suppose I should go take a look at the fellow. I paid enough to have him shipped here. Please tell me he has good points that outweigh his spurious pedigree. Can he be used for training, at least? A riding horse?”

Paddy held the door open for her, his expression guarded. “I think it’s best you see him yourself, girl.”

They walked together down the path toward the stables, Paddy clucking his tongue over their new acquisition all the while. A life-long pessimist, Paddy never failed to see the dark cloud under the silver lining. But he was probably right. If he thought the stud she’d purchased wasn’t any good, then they probably had an expensive new gelding, not even suitable to be a riding horse.

Imogen unpinned her braided hair as they walked. It had a coarse texture—like a horse’s mane, her mother had always pointed out. A few white-blonde strands blew across her eyes, escaping confinement. She tucked them back behind her ears as Paddy led the way through the stable. The air smelled of horse and manure, hay and dust, all scents that seemed welcoming and safe to Imogen. The stables were large, the French style with two rows of stalls facing each other across a center aisle. The old stud, Dalmation—the only one of Henry’s studs she and Paddy deemed worth keeping—had his stall down at the far end, away from the yearlings and colts. The newcomer waited a couple of stalls over.

She looked over the door at the creature. A dark chestnut with neat compact lines, he looked exactly like the sketch published in the auctioneer’s newsletter: five years old, deep chest, well-formed legs and haunches, clear eyes. About fifteen hands, he wasn’t a large horse, but his racing record—she did know that to be accurate, at least—indicated he had heart. He’d had only one second place finish among dozens of wins.

The horse stood in the far corner of the stall, his entire body quivering.

“What’s wrong with him?” Imogen asked.

“Not any normal sickness,” Paddy said.

She glanced over her shoulder at him, surprised by his hesitant tone. “What have you tried?”

His eyes drifted toward his boots. “Nothing to try, girl. The beast has the shakes.”

Imogen turned her attention back to the horse in the stall. That must be why no one else outbid her. They’d been at the auction and seen this display. “He certainly won enough races. The pedigree might be faked, but his track record isn’t.”

“That horse is trouble, girl,” Paddy said flatly. “We should ship ‘im back.”

“We don’t have the money for that now.” She hadn’t told him about Hammersly, thinking one catastrophe per morning all he needed. She lifted the wooden latch on the stall door. Paddy knew better than to protest—no horse would ever hurt her. Horses always knew somehow that she shared a bit of common blood. When she stepped closer, the horse’s head came up and his eyes focused on her. She held out a gloved hand to let him get the smell of her.

The horse’s nostrils quivered. He took a step forward and set his forehead against her sternum. Surprised by the gesture, Imogen scratched under his forelock. Then she stepped back to get a better look at him. “He’s docile enough.”

She laid one hand against the creature’s neck and felt the shudders flowing through his body. When she pulled back to look at his teeth, she noticed that the halter’s ring had worn a raw spot into his cheek. She found another at the top of the chinstrap as well, where that ring rubbed. A third reddened spot lay under the buckle of the headstall.

He’s not a horse.

Imogen stared at the creature, amazed that he’d ended up in her stable. Of all the things her mother had ever dreaded, this would be the worst—a puca, one of the Fair Folk who could wear the shape of a horse. As such, he must have even less tolerance for cold iron than Imogen herself.

She looked the stallion in the eye and unbuckled the harness, careful not to touch the metal. Even through gloves, it bothered her. Everywhere iron or steel touched his hide, the hair had worn away, leaving red and irritated skin.

“Shouldn’t do it,” Paddy said. “That beast is trouble, girl. Send him back.”

She cast a glance over her shoulder at him. “You knew, didn’t you?”

Paddy just shook his head.

She hung the harness over the stall door and turned back to the horse. He still quivered, which made her suspect another source for his discomfort. She leaned against his shoulder and lifted one hoof—a bar shoe, already rusting. The bar had a special tongue attached, bent upward so that it brushed the inside of his hoof on the sensitive frog. It must be torture for the creature. “Get me a rope harness, Paddy,” she snapped. “I want Jack right now.”

Grumbling, Paddy left.

“I’m going to have those taken off,” she told the horse. “So think kindly of us here.”

He nuzzled her shoulder and sighed. Paddy returned and handed a rope harness over the stall door. Imogen looked the horse in the eye, and then slid the harness up and over his muzzle. “Trust me.”

The horse followed docilely when she took him over to the work area the farrier used when he visited. A gray-haired horseman who’d been at the farm nearly as long as Paddy, Jack could turn his hand to almost anything. He produced a pair of pincers and pulled off the shoes. He frowned over the odd design, but tossed them into a pile in the back with other old shoes and scrap. “Didn’t know anyone used iron shoes,” the wiry hand said to Paddy.

Imogen didn’t comment. She took the horse back to his stall, led him inside and removed the harness. The horse lipped her sleeve, but after a moment hung his head as if too tired for even that. But his shivering had passed, so she left him there and walked with Paddy back up to the house.

“Shouldn’t have done it, girl,” he repeated under his breath, like a litany.

“We have troubles enough, Paddy. Don’t borrow from tomorrow. It was the right thing to do, and you know it.” She left him at the door and went on to the office where she could sit and stew over the investment she’d just lost. That horse would have been valuable at stud—or so she’d thought.