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Spirit of the HerdA Story of Second Chances
By SALLY BORDEN BUTEAU
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Sally Borden Buteau
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe sun moved across the curtains, sending the first rays of light into Fen's room. She woke slowly, stretching her arms over her head, and turned to look at the horse clock sitting on the small table next to her bed.
"Eight o'clock!" Fen cried. She sat up quickly and looked around for her clothes. They were jumbled in a heap on the floor, as usual. "Oh, no! They're taking attendance and I'm still in my pajamas! I'm dead! Why didn't Mom wake me up?"
Fen fell back onto the bed, quickly deciding she would pretend to be sick. As she lay there, she heard the funny, off-key humming of her little brother, Alex, outside her door. Suddenly, she relaxed, remembering it was the first day of April vacation.
"Phew! Thank goodness for Alex. He always knows what day it is."
Fen got up and went to the window. She pulled it open and stuck her head outside to catch the chilly spring breeze floating by. The sun was already filling the valley and lighting up the snow on the far mountains. Their peaks were so high and jagged that it seemed to Fen they must be void of life. But her father had told her about all the plants that grew and animals that walked on those perilous peaks. He told her stories of his trips through the mountain passes and being awed by the beauty that surrounded him. He described the animals, wildflowers and the trees covered in sparkling snow, even in the height of summer. But his favorite scene from the top of those peaks was the view of the meadows below that surrounded the home he had built with his own two hands.
When Fen was thirteen, she had pleaded with her father to take her on a trail ride through those mountains. Mack had promised Fen that, when she turned fifteen, he would take her on a week-long expedition through the rocky peaks, just as his father had done with him. Two years had seemed like an eternity to Fen, especially since her seventh grade year at John Muir Middle School had turned out to be one long disaster and this year had been no better. She had hoped she would find friends in eighth grade, but she hadn't and it made her feel like an outcast pony at the bottom of a herd's pecking order.
Although Fen was a smart student, earning good grades in the advanced placement classes, she considered school a prison sentence. All she ever wanted to do was ride her horses out on the wide open range and along the wooded trails that surrounded their ranch. During the spring and summer when other kids were playing baseball and swimming, Fen's favorite place was the arena, barrel racing and roping cattle.
When Fen complained to her father about school, he was not sympathetic. Mack hadn't been given the chance to finish high school because his family was so poor he had to get a full-time job to pay the bills. Fen's mother, Renee, had gone to law school and become a successful attorney. She knew the value of a good education. Between Renee's college degrees and Mack's strong work ethic and business sense, they had built a working ranch, buying, training, breeding and selling horses. Fen assumed she would inherit the ranch and wouldn't need a formal education.
"Why do I have to go to school?" Fen had asked her parents at the end of a particularly bad day.
Math class had been so boring she had drifted off to sleep and fallen out of her chair. She had let out a yelp and suddenly reached out, wildly swinging an arm in the air. Her instinctive grab for the reins in her dream, quickly melted into the reality of a classmate's pant leg. It had startled him and her and the entire class went into gales of laughter. With all the commotion, the teacher had lost his place in the lesson and decided to end class for the day.
The teacher had reprimanded Fen for her lack of commitment to academic work, when she had so much potential. She had heard the speech before. But Fen knew that any responses she had thought to say would be considered rude or impertinent. If you tell me something new, I'll listen. If you teach me something I don't already know, I'll be interested. If you let me tell you what I really think, I'll participate.
"Why didn't one of your classmates wake you up before you fell over, for Pete's sake?" Fen's mother had asked about the incident.
"Nobody likes me that much, Mom. They were all waiting for it to happen! Mr. Finnigan had to end the class and send everybody out for a 'movement break'. It was so humiliating! I'd much rather muck twenty stalls a day than go back to math class or any class for that matter."
"Then mucking stalls will be the only thing you'll be able to do for the rest of your life," Mack had responded with a stern look. "Now go do your homework and then you can muck those twenty stalls that are waiting for you out back."
Fen sighed, remembering the conversation. She shivered in the cool air and closed the bedroom window. Pulling on her plush, purple bathrobe made her feel better. Fen opened the door to find Alex sitting on the floor. He sat outside her door every morning when school was not in session.
Alex had turned six this year and now attended a private school for children with special needs. His legs were splayed out and he was bouncing a small, red, rubber ball in the space between them, using one finger to keep the ball in motion. He never missed a beat and the ball made a rhythmical, "bonk", on the wooden floor that would go on for hours, if he was left uninterrupted.
"Good morning, Alex." Fen knelt down beside her brother.
She waited for a response, but Alex continued to bounce the ball and hum. Fen knew never to take the ball away because her brother's tantrums were immediate and fierce.
"Alex. Stop bouncing the ball, please."
Alex stopped the bouncing by putting his finger on the ball as it hit the floor. He stared at his finger and continued humming, gently rocking back and forth.
"Good morning, Alex," Fen said, again. She gently put her finger under his chin and he instinctively pulled his head up. He didn't look at her, but let his gaze fall somewhere over her left shoulder. Fen pulled her finger away and Alex went back to bouncing his ball.
When her brother had been diagnosed with Autism three years ago, Fen had been told to continue talking to Alex and encouraging him to look in her direction when he was calm. His teachers told Fen it was difficult for Alex to look people in the eye and his repetitive activities, like ball bouncing, helped to keep him calm. His repetitive behaviors did seem to give him peace, but Fen thought it wasn't helping him to learn or be part of the family. She thought he must be lonely, staying inside his own mind so much of the time.
When Alex became agitated, Fen often took him out to see the horses in their pastures. At the end of the day, it was their ritual to visit the horses in the paddocks before they were turned in for their evening grain. Having schedules and routines kept Alex happy and he loved grooming the horses and stroking their soft noses. Animals always quieted when Alex was around. The horses nuzzled his clothes and face and stood still and relaxed when he touched them. It occurred to Fen more than once that she and her little brother had something very important in common. They both felt more comfortable with horses than people.
One of Alex's teachers had told Fen that the horses and Alex understood each other. Both of them faced the world in a constant state of fear, always alert for danger. Alex's repetitive behaviors, like humming and ball bouncing, were his way of avoiding social interaction, protecting himself from a confusing and unpredictable world. Fen wondered why Alex's teachers didn't encourage him to do what horses do. Horses didn't isolate themselves to become vulnerable and lonely. They sought togetherness in a herd, finding peace in the shelter of each other.
Fen knew that when horses paced in pens, cribbed on their stall walls or developed repetitive motions, like head swinging, it was because they were stressed. All they needed was the company of other horses, physical activity and attention from people to pull them out of their boredom and unhappiness. In a moment of frustration, Fen had tried to explain this to one of Alex's teachers. She thought her words hadn't made a difference, until she was with her mother at pick-up time the next week and noticed that Alex had been moved to a larger play group in the afternoon.
Fen understood that horses were prey animals and that fear was a good instinct to have, but knowing that Alex lived with constant anxiety made her sad. Fen was fearless and she knew her lack of caution had gotten her into plenty of trouble; but it also made her a great rider and riding was her passion, as well as her source of pride. She could already keep up with her father and his ranch hands, as well as anybody else who wanted to take her on, in or out of the ring.
Fen looked down at Alex and sighed. Her brother never spoke a meaningful word, but the teachers said he was making nice progress in school. She briefly wondered what they considered progress when he was six years old and couldn't or wouldn't say his sister's name. Alex would often mumble to himself, but it sounded like a jumble of sounds to Fen. She always said something back, hoping one day it would actually become a conversation.
Sometimes Alex would repeat what someone else said, but only in his "robot voice", as Fen called it. The teachers had explained to her that when he used that voice it meant he didn't really understand the words. They called it, echolalia, and, indeed, it did sound like a hollow, haunting echo to Fen. It was curious and saddening to her that horses could communicate with each other and people without words. But her little brother, who had a voice and even had words, couldn't seem to communicate with anyone at all.
Fen went downstairs and made bacon and eggs, knowing that her mother was already at work and her father would be out checking the border fences. He checked them every other morning to make sure they were in good shape and it gave him a chance to see that all of his horses were safe. Cougars were rarely seen, but there were bears around now that hibernation was over. Deer were also a problem. Fen had watched these skittish animals as they fled from predators. In their flight for life they would misjudge the height of a fence, seeing it at the last moment. The deer usually got away from the torn up wires and posts, but it made more work for her father and his busy ranch hands. It seemed like they were always fixing fence line somewhere on the large property.
At the smell of breakfast, Alex shuffled down the steps and sat at the table to eat. He carefully broke each piece of food into small pieces on his plate before eating them. As Fen and her brother sat quietly munching together, the kitchen door opened.
"Hello, my dears!" Rosie's cheery voice broke the quiet.
Rosie was followed by her son, Clancy, Fen's best friend. Fen found the company of girls confusing, complicated and often hurtful, so her childhood friend continued to be her only friend, even though he was a boy and two years older. Although he was sixteen, Clancy had been retained a year, so he was in ninth grade at the middle school.
Rosie was Alex's day-care provider when school was not in session. Fen loved Rosie. She was tall and robust with a head full of beautiful, golden curls that had just a twinge of grey around the ends. Rosie was gentle and sensitive. Her efficient manner and calm nature were perfect for Alex. They baked together, worked on craft projects, took walks and played on the playground equipment and obstacle course that Mack and Clancy had built for Alex.
"Hey, Fen! Hey, Alex!" Clancy said, smiling at Fen.
Clancy sat next to Alex who was chewing his last piece of egg. Clancy picked up the boy's glass of orange juice and put it next to his own face. Alex looked at the glass and Clancy moved his face to get into Alex's line of vision.
"Good morning!" Clancy said, again.
"Good morning," Alex repeated in his echolalic voice. He took his glass from Clancy, put it back on the table and looked down at his empty plate.
Fen sighed. She looked at Clancy and shrugged her shoulders. It always discouraged her when Alex ignored the attention of the people who loved him. But Clancy never got impatient with the boy's lack of emotional response.
"He is who he is, Fen, just like you and me. He'll get as far as he can go and that's good enough." Clancy smiled and picked up a piece of bacon.
Fen marveled at her friend's good nature, despite his difficult past. Clancy smiled a lot with the kind of face that smiled all over, just like his mother. But he carried his father's coloring and features, reminding them that, although Hal was gone, part of him was still walking with them. Clancy's brown eyes twinkled and his cheeks glowed against skin that reminded Fen of cinnamon. He was lean and tall for sixteen and his head was covered with thick, black curls.
Although Clancy was usually a happy-go-lucky guy, Fen had seen his smiling face quickly turn as dark as the thunderclouds that swept over their valley, covering the vast, blue Montana sky without warning. Anyone who tried to hurt Fen or Alex or abuse an animal, paid the price with Clancy's fists. His temper had gotten him into trouble more than a few times, but he never admitted regret for protecting what he cared about.
"Hey," Clancy said to Fen. "Wanna take a ride up to Riverbend sometime? I heard that cougar tracks have been seen around there recently. If you weren't such a lazy cowgirl, sleeping in till nine o'clock, maybe we could have seen the cat ourselves this morning." He winked at Fen.
"It was eight o'clock," Fen scowled. "Just give me ten minutes and I'll be tacked up and ready to go!" she exclaimed, heading for the back door.
"Uh, Fen?" Rosie said, quietly. "Don't you think you should change out of your p.j.s?"
"It's too late now, anyway," Clancy sighed. "I've got chores to do and a bunch of homework to make up for school. And it's all due tomorrow." Clancy looked away from his mother's frown and rolled his eyes at Fen. "Let's plan for tomorrow afternoon. I'll come over when I'm finished fixing Mrs. Bixby's fence." Clancy's face turned a slight shade of red, while his mother crossed her arms over her chest.
"So what happened to Mrs. Bixby's fence, Clance?" Fen asked, taking her last bite of toast. She smiled at Rosie's scowl, knowing there must be a good story behind it. "Well?"
"Ugh," Clancy answered. "I thought the whole town had heard by now. You have been in bed a long time." He shrugged. "I was riding Bandit and he spooked at something. He bolted, so I let him go, thinking maybe he knew something I didn't, like there might be a cougar waiting in a tree?" Clancy glared at his mother, but now it was her turn to do the eye-rolling. She had heard that excuse more than once in the telling of the story.
"Anyway," Clancy continued. "We galloped for awhile and then, suddenly, I realized we were heading for Mrs. Bixby's fence. You can't see the darn thing. It's one of those new-fangled, flimsy pieces of junk people use so you can't see it. How stupid is that? A fence is supposed to be seen so things don't run into it! So, over we went, only, well, we didn't quite make it and Bandit basically ripped the whole fence line right out of the ground."
"Yikes, Clancy!" Fen exclaimed, in mock distress. "Were you and Bandit okay?"
"Sure. When Bandit's in a full-out gallop, his weight and momentum turn him into a small freight train. That fence might as well have been a bunch of toothpicks with dental floss in between," Clancy griped. "But, she wants it put back up, so there goes my afternoon." He sighed and drank the last of Fen's orange juice.
"Well, you better get to it." Rosie slapped Clancy's leg. "Alex and I have some fun things to do and I'm sure Miss Sleep-Until-Noon Fen, here, has some chores on her list, too."
"It was eight o'clock!" Fen exclaimed again, indignantly.
Rosie helped Alex clean up the table and they started washing the dishes. It was a chore he hated. Whenever water poured from a faucet, Alex put his hands over his ears, shrieked and rocked back and forth. The sudden sound and motion threw him into a panic. But Rosie had learned to turn the water on gradually, letting a steady drip slowly turn into a light flow so they could get the task done in peace. Fen put her dishes on the counter and started for the stairs. Clancy got up, gave Rosie a hug and headed for the door. He stopped and turned around with a big grin on his face.
"By the way, cowgirl, I also heard from one of Red Drysdale's ranch hands that he saw tracks of a wild herd, just north of Riverbend."
Clancy hopped out the door and ran for his truck before Fen could chase him down. He knew how much she loved to catch a glimpse of the wild ones. Fen ran across the kitchen and started out the back door, desperate for more information.
Excerpted from Spirit of the Herd by SALLY BORDEN BUTEAU Copyright © 2013 by Sally Borden Buteau. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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