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Starting a new life on a farm in the country, Nickel has to adjust to the attentions of a local bully ...
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Starting a new life on a farm in the country, Nickel has to adjust to the attentions of a local bully and the appearances of a ghost horse that was supposed to have died in a fire.
The horse came out of nowhere, out of blackness, to gallop beside the car.Nickel almost yelled, it was so sudden, so unexpected.Through the window he could see the bog animal's shoulder muscles moving under its dark hide.Then it put on speed, raced ahead of the car, cut across in front of it, disappeared in the night shadows on the other side of the lane.
"Wow," Nickel said. "We could have hit it."
"Hit what?" Starla asked from the front seat.
"The horse." What did she think?
Joe, driving, looked at him in the rearview mirror. "What horse?"
The horse had run right in front of their faces.They had to be kidding him.But Nickel wasn't in a kidding mood.They'd been driving too long, and he was too hungry.So if they were waiting for an argument, too bad.Nickel just wanted to get where they were going.
They were almost there.According to Joe, this overgrown rutted land led to his parents' farm - the one Joe had run away from five years ago.He'd never been back.Until now.
They drove up to a white box of a house smothered in bushes, covered in vines, knee deep in fallen leaves.Drove to the back and pulled up beside a pickup truck decorated with cats.When Joe opened the car door, the cats jumped off, streaked away.Nickel and Starla got out, followed Joe.Not tot the house, though.Joe went straight for the barn, through the open door in the stone wall. Nickel smelled an old smoke smell, unpleasant, sad.He would have followed, but Joe said, "Don't come in." That's when Nickel saw that the door wasn't just open.It was gone, burned away.Inside the doorway there were only a few feet of packed earth to walk on and then a big hole where thefloorboards has fallen into the barnyard below.
Joe came out of the barn looking sick."I can't believe this."
"Your mother told you the barn burned," Starla said.
Joe shook his head."I couldn't picture it."
Light flashed as the house door opened.A woman rushed out, calling, "Josiah, Josiah, is it you?
They has to go trough a little fuss then, the woman hanging on to Joe, dragging him in the door, Joe coming back out, beckoning to Starla and Nickel.They passed through vestibule piled with newspapers and into a stuffy, dim kitchen.
The woman was half crying, holding Joe away from her to look at him, hugging him again, Joe half laughing, patting her on the back when she hugged him.
A man came to the kitchen door, stood scowling.A blue TV light flickered from the room behind him.The mother was really crying now. "Lindale, look who's back."
"I see him," the man said.
Joe detached himself from his mother, faced his father."This is just a visit," he said."Mom wanted to meet my wife."
The man tilted his head toward Nickel."You ain't been married long enough to grow that one."
Starla burst out laughing, the way she did a lot, bright and happy and loud.It sort of stopped everybody in their tracks. She reached out, put her arm around Nickel. "He was my sister's kid," she said."He's ours now."
Nickel didn't like being talked about like a lost dog."I'm Nicholas," he said to the man, "and I want to know if we're staying here or if you're going to kick us out."
There were surprised looks.Nickel was surprised , too.He hadn't meant to come out with that, but he was tired and he was hungry.He wanted to get somewhere that he belonged, even if it was a motel room, even if it was just the car.
"I'm not going to kick you out."The man turned, headed back toward the flickering TV light.Everybody just stood there for a minute.Then Joe followed his father.
The woman looked at them sort of helplessly, as if getting them here had been her whole plan and she didn't know what to do next.
"I'll tell you what, Mrs. Clendaniel," Starla said. "I'm just about starved to death, and so is Nickel."
The woman acted like that was the best news she had ever heard.Hurried to the refrigerator.Pulled out little covered bowls, dumped things into pan, put pans on all the burners. Starla got up and tried to help, but "No," the woman said. "Just sit and rest, tell me how you are, how Josiah has been."
Starla sat. "Joe's fine.Looking for a better job."
The woman stopped working, sat heavily at the table.:I just wanted him here.His father, since Josiah left, all these years, it's been -"Her eyes teared up, overflowed."Everything's been let go, place is a mess, then the barn - it's been three weeks since the barn went, and he hasn't done a thing, just sits in front of that TV."
Something on the stove sizzled as it boiled over, and the woman jumped up, moved the pan, looked in it."It's all right."
Went to the door, called, "Come on for a bite."
Between them, she and Starla set the table, dished out the odds and ends of food.Joe and his father came out, looking all right, not like they'd been arguing or anything.Joe had said they couldn't get along, that he was only making this visit because his mother had begged him so hard.Nickel was glad they weren't fighting.He wanted to stay and eat.
There wasn't much talking at the table.Nickel thought maybe so much had happened since Joe had been gone that nobody knew where to start.Then he remembered that Joe and his mother had talked by phone plenty, so that wasn't it.
Joe's mother kept apologizing about the food."I'd have cooked a nice dinner, bit I wasn't sure when to expect you."
Nickel wondered what a nice dinner was to her.There was enough food here to feed an army."And I wish I'd known about the boy."Worried to herself about where he would sleep. "There's that back bedroom," she muttered, "but it's loaded with junk."
"I can sleep anywhere," Nickel said."On the floor.Anywhere.I don't care."
Starla laughed."He really doesn't. He's used to everything."
"There's a couch," the man said.No smile, but Nickel could tell it was all right with him if they stayed.
Joe was acting more at home all the time.He asked some questions about the fire.His father didn't say a lot, but at least he answered.You could see that Joe's mother was relieved.
Then Joe said, "How's old Cougar?" and Nickel felt a change in the air.Joe didn't notice at first."Cougar's my horse," he explained to Nickel."Meanest horse you ever saw. Except with me.He used to follow me around like a dog."
Then he felt it too.Saw his parents faces.His father, half angry. "Didn't you tell him?"
His mother tearful, defensive."I couldn't."
"Couldn't what?" Joe said.
Nickel had already guessed.Joe looked like he had, too, but his father said it anyway."Cougar died in the fire."
Joe looked shocked, sorry, guilty."Poor old Cougar," he said.
"He wouldn't come out," Joe's father said. "He was scared of the flames.I went after him, but he went farther back in.Things started falling, and I had to get out of there."No expression at all, but you could tell how bad he felt.
Joe just shook his head.
"You know how he was," Joe's father said."You were the only one who could do anything with him."
"He had funny ways," Joe's mother said.
"I know."Joe almost smiled, thinking about it."Remember when I got the bike?How jealous he was?He hated it when I rode that bike.He would run along with me and try to nip it."
They all laughed in a sad sort of way.At least they were laughing.
"I wish you could have seen him," Joe told Nickel."He was big, powerful.Black as night."
"Like the horse we saw on the way in," Nickel said.
The old man looked sharply at Nickel."What horse?"
"He thought he saw a horse," Starla said, "but it was just shadows."
"It was Cougar," the man said.The word gave Nickel cold chills.The way he said it.
"Your scaring the boy." Joe's mother got up, began clearing the table. :He half scares me," she said, going around here saying, 'I just saw Cougar,' or 'Old cougar's out by the barn wall.' " She laughed nervously."Why would a horse want to come back anyway?"
Copyright 1999 by Helen V. Griffith Cougar. Copyright © by Helen Griffith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted October 7, 2004