Broken Branch

Novel ~ not yet submitted

Violet McHale hasn't been the same since the death of her mother in a tragic barn fire. When her father's ill health brings her home to help run his horse farm, can her love of horses and the help of a new trainer help her overcome her fears and take the reins?

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Chapter One

     The fire was tragic, as most fires are, consuming a dream and a livelihood in one fell swoop. Men in faded yellow suits dashed back and forth, lights swirled, and the screaming, both human and animal, roared like a tornado in my ears. As we watched the flames tower overhead, my father stood, grim and pale, weeping under the gleaming July moon. The snap cracking of heated wood permeated every fiber of my numb body, but I could not turn away. It wasn’t just my mother and the horses those greedy flames devoured, but my very heart burned in that barn. It was only in the gray hours before dawn when the truth of our loss finally seeped into my numbness. My father, shivering with shock, sat beside me on the tailgate of our old dodge with a cold cup of coffee in one hand and my small palm in the other. The ceaseless activity around us went unacknowledged as he stared at the smoking rubble before him. It was a grim festival of lights and hushed voices. 

     I shot up in the bed, beaded with sweat and terror. The nightmare was still pounding in my temples, drawing me back to the summer of my fifteenth year. The smells and sounds of that night embedded themselves into my soul and leaked into every day of my life like poison, enough to sicken and hollow me out, but not quite enough to finish the job. At 28, I was left internally disfigured, a disability invisible to the world. I hugged myself close, shaking off the memories as best I could. It didn’t help that I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom. I hadn’t been back here in thirteen years, not since that terrible summer.

     Broken Branch farm was named for the meandering creek that wended its way through the lush valley. It was one hundred and seventy acres nestled firmly against the Big Lick Mountain in central Pennsylvania, treasured by Daniel and Andrea McHale. By the time I came along, they had already developed a reputation for producing some of the finest reining horses on the east coast. My father’s shrewd eye for breeding stock and my mother’s golden touch training horses had made them formidable competitors in the stock horse business. I was riding before I could walk, so immersed in horses I could not tell where they ended, and I began. I dreamed a life of fast horses and hall of fame barrel runs. It only took a few short hours to let that dream sift through my fingers and disappear. After the fire, I could not face anything that reminded me of the woman who loved me more than life itself. I was inconsolable. For weeks I would not leave the sanctuary of my bedroom until my father finally reached the limits of his patience.

     I went to live with my Aunt and Uncle, Elise and Charles Wentworth, in Ohio, happy to leave behind the family farm and a father who gathered himself and trudged on after losing the loves of his life. Aunt Elise gave me a good life, a quiet life in the suburbs, far away where I erased the painful memories and made a new start. I was all grown up, now, a college graduate, a successful store manager, but I would never outgrow the past. I had fought coming back to Broken Branch. If it weren’t for the tearful pleas of my Aunt to head east and help my ailing father, I would never have crossed the state line. I barely knew my father now. We had kept in touch at birthdays and holidays, but nothing more than inane chatter without substance or meaning. And yet, here I was, rocking on my old twin bed surrounded by the mementos of an equestrian youth. Pink walls heavily lined with photos and magazine spreads of horses and riders, endless shelves packed with the writings of Walter Farley, Bonnie Bryant, Dick Francis and so many more equine authors, between the ribbons, trophies and model horses, there was no empty surface in the room. Breyer horses of every size still lived in their boxes, stacked waist high in the corners. The closet was packed with show clothes and gleaming cowboy boots. On the bed posts, crumbling leather halters hung from rusty old horseshoes and the ceiling was covered with glow in the dark constellation stickers. I was just another horse crazy little girl before my world fell out from under me.

     I drifted to the window, awash in the painful memories of that life altering fire. I could feel the heat and tightness of ash streaking my face so long ago. I couldn’t stop the images from leaping out of their hidden corners in my brain and pressing themselves to the back of my eye lids. The coroner and the fire crew had not been able to locate my mother’s body then, and never would. Long after the sun had risen and I had been shuffled away and up to my room, I had stood in this very spot, unable to process my grief. Tears leaked down my cheeks, letting me know how little time had done to ease the holes in my heart. What would life have been like for us if that night hadn’t happened? Who would I have become with a mother and father, with a whole and wholesome upbringing in the cornucopia of rural America, with the unburdened psyche of a normal human being? I gazed morosely out from my second story sanctuary.

     The new barn sat regally atop the ashen grave of its predecessor, gleaming in the early May sunshine. Under the steel structure our horses lay, dust upon the earth, keeping company with the woman who gave her life trying to save them. My father had rebuilt, bigger and better, purchased new breeding stock and had hired a trainer a few years back to help him succeed in the cutthroat horse industry. He rose every morning, strong and resolute, though a bit thinner and looking worn out. He still spent his time running the barn, but now from a director’s chair and not the saddle. I knew it was difficult for him to give up the hard work, even for a short time, but he didn’t let it get him down.

     My eyes wavered, then caught on a solitary figure marching through the muddy puddles of the rutted lane leading to the front door. Her black hair bobbed energetically about her shoulders in a mass of wild curls. She stopped under my window and picked a few stray pieces of hay from her jacket, then mounted the steps to ring the bell. I heard my father’s heavy footsteps echo through the hall, down the steps, hesitating at the door, the murmur of his rumbling voice. The words grew more distinct as the pair walked into the kitchen.

     I hopped in the shower to wash off my nightmares and hoped the stinging water would drive the buzz of questions from my thoughts before I faced the day. The steaming water cascaded in rivulets down my tall frame, rinsing clear my short, mahogany hair while I puzzled over what to say to my father. After toweling dry, donning a Penn State sweatshirt and faded jeans, I sucked in my breath and counted to ten. Now or never, I thought, as I headed down to join the party. My father gave a tight smile as I entered, handing me a cup of blistering strong coffee with a nod and continued his conversation for a moment. While he spoke, I flicked my eyes over to the woman leaning against the countertop with a mug pressed between her hands. My coffee caught in my throat and I sputtered, coughing the strong brown liquid all down the front of my shirt and onto the floor. Red faced, I snatched a paper towel and mopped up the mess while they both turned their attention to me.

      “You gonna make it?” My father questioned in jest. I nodded, still too stunned to speak. “Violet, this is Cadence. She’s been training the youngsters for the last few years and has pretty much been running the place by herself lately.”

     Here, in the flesh was Cadence Price. I had posters of her on my bedroom wall, torn from the pages of my Horse Illustrated magazine. She was one of the top ranked American Quarter Horse Association all around riders in the nation. I had spent a good portion of my youth obsessing over her intelligent deep brown eyes, her heart shaped face and her incredible skills in the saddle. While most kids I went to school with fell in love with movies stars or pop idols, I fell head over heels for the rodeo queen. I knew the minute I saw her, at the innocent age of 10 years old, that I was totally, completely gay. Even now, 18 years later, I could feel myself trembling with the nervousness of a childhood crush. She was smaller than I thought she would be, only about 5’3” with a curvy, muscular build. She had a dimple on her left cheek, her smile slightly broader on that side, and her sparkling chocolate eyes crinkled at the sides. My heart flopped when she met my eyes and stretched out a hand in greeting.

     “Pleasure to meet you, Ms. McHale,” she said, her voice low and smooth as silk. “Your father has told me such wonderful things about you, and I’m thrilled to finally make your acquaintance. I could really use an outside perspective dealing with one of the colts. I swear he may be the smartest horse I’ve ever handled, and he knows it, too.” As she drew my hand into hers, I caught the faint scent of her, earthy and citrusy. Her hands were far from rough like the ranchers and stable hands that preceded her – no telltale callouses, no gnarled joints, just soft, delicate skin stretched across the bones of an artist. Electricity danced up my arm at our contact and I pulled away, startled by how off kilter I had suddenly become. Her eyebrows arched, asking questions I could not answer, so I turned instead, to my father.

     “I don’t know what you promised her, but I didn’t come back here to work horses and get all wrapped up in this place. I came back to help you while you recover, then I’m out. I’m sorry Miss Price, but I’m sure you have things well handled when it comes to the livestock. You’ll have to consult with someone more knowledgeable on the matter if you are having difficulties because I haven’t been on a horse in years and I have no intention of starting it up again.” It was unlike me to be so haughty, to sound so pretentious, it was almost like the words had dribbled out of someone else’s brain and found their way into my mouth. I turned on my heel, embarrassed and upset at myself for the harsh tone of voice as I retreated upstairs, cradling the coffee close to my chest to settle the staccato beat of my racing heart.

     My father watched me go, shaking his head and offering an apologetic smile to Cadence, then he followed my receding form. He tapped once on the door and let himself in, strolling over to sit on the edge of my bed, where I was perched. We both watched out the window, silent, as Cadence crossed the grassy lawn and disappeared into the barn.

     “I know you still have some strong feelings about all of this, Vie,” he started. I interrupted him quickly.

     “No, dad, you don’t. You just keep on trucking like nothing ever happened and you think I should do the same. I can’t. I can’t go back into that barn. I can’t stand on the place where my mother died and pretend everything is fine. I don’t want to go back to how things were when I was a kid. I’ll help you around the house and I’ll run through the book work for you, but that is it.”

     “I’m sorry, Vie. I don’t expect you to dive into the barn chores, but you have such a talent with horses-”

     “Had. I HAD a talent. Thirteen years is a long time.”

     "You didn’t forget. I watched you work your Dr. Dolittle magic from the time you were old enough to toddle down the barn aisle. You have the touch. For as many years as I’ve worked colts, I’ve never had the same connection with them that I saw in you. I need you here, but I think YOU need you here more than that. You need to face this or you will never get past it. It hurts. I hurt every day, but I rejoice that I was blessed to have spent those precious years with the woman I love, and I want to honor her by keeping her dreams alive. She was the heart and soul of this farm. I see her in every blade of grass, in every horse, even in the view of the valley. I hear her in hoof beats and idling tractors. I let the smell of fresh baled hay wrap around me like her arms and I know every moment that she is with me. My only regret is letting you go. I should have insisted you stay and helped you through this, but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through myself and I sure as hell didn’t know how to make it any better for you. The past may be set in stone, but the future is fluid.” His voice wavered a bit and he blinked a few times to force a stray tear back into hiding and rose to his feet. “I want this place to be yours some day and I want you to want that. Your mother would have wanted that, as well.”

     I stared out the window for a long time after he left, struggling to come to terms with all he had said. He was right to see my mother in this place. Everywhere I looked, I saw her, too.