The Iron Horse

The Iron Horse

by Dawn Erin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781463435646
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 12/09/2011
Pages: 524
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Iron Horse

A Novel
By Dawn Erin


Copyright © 2011 Dawn Erin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4634-3564-6

Chapter One

Sunny Quinn's mother always said her trouble started when she quit the Barn. Sunny herself wasn't so sure about that. It implied that she had been trim, tidy and well adjusted until the very moment she called her mother from a pay phone in Skowhegan, Maine and pleaded with her to come take her home. Mom would always remember the abject sobbing coming down the line that summer morning, and felt that her child had never recovered from that day. For Sunny though, it was hardly that simple.

Her life had revolved around horses from the epic night spent watching National Velvet at Nana's house. She'd sat enthralled, a foot from the screen, watching an impossibly young Elizabeth Taylor take a deep whiff of a flowerbed at the Grand National racecourse and sigh "mmmm.... horses." Just like that, Sunny's heart opened like the explosive clang of the starting gate and she was off and running. The begging for riding lessons began in earnest. There was a tugging in her tiny chest every time she thought about it. If she didn't get to ride soon she determined the world would surely turn stale and worthless forever.

Her dream came to tenuous fruition the day her new stepdad arranged a trail ride at a local stable. He was just married to her mother and trying hard to get to know Sunny and her younger twin brothers. Sunny was excited about the ride, but apprehensive about going with her new "Dad"—as her mother had instructed her to call him. She sensed it was a display of some kind, had the feeling he'd rather be somewhere else, a place she would also rather be—with her Mommy. Dad's smile seemed pushed from his face, the kindly pitch of his voice a little too shiny and perfect. Sunny's vocabulary was limited, but her child's instinct was unbound. She didn't particularly like this man so far and wasn't sure she wanted to get to know him. But for today, she decided he must really be her Dad because he was taking her to ride a horse for the first time, and nothing else mattered.

The ride was an hour-long excursion into the piney New England woods on horses who knew the trail by heart. It cost $20 per person, an exorbitant amount of money by Sunny's estimation, and from that day on she associated horses with huge, unattainable piles of cash. Her instinct would prove to be right on the money.

Sunny spent the next year dreaming of riding again. But things changed a lot in a year. The open exchange she had always shared with her mother diminished. Sunny now came up against the jagged edges of her stepfather's intimidating persona. He could be pleasant, cruel and aloof by turns and Sunny never knew which to expect. Violence often erupted from him under the stress being a newlywed at the age of 24, with an instant family to support. Sunny quickly learned to tiptoe around this frightening new presence. As for the horses, there wasn't time or money to spend on riding lessons every week. Stepdad told her so on a regular basis when she asked, and later begged. But Sunny remembered Nana's endurance lecture and she persisted.

When she asked again on a snow day out of school, her stepfather sighed and put down the stack of bills he was scowling at. "Okay here," he said, holding out the phone book with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. "Look up all the riding academies and call around to see what they charge for lessons. Then we'll talk."

Sunny's eyes grew wide but she carried the book over to her room and paged tentatively through it, looking for the "H"—for horses. Once she finally found her way to "Riding Academies" she looked over the dozen or so listings to contact. She mustered the gumption to call the first place on the list: Appledale Farm. No fancy ad, just a phone number. Sunny's heart pounded in her ears when a crisp older woman's voice answered. She inquired tentatively and was told that yes, they gave riding instruction, at ten dollars a lesson. She was also informed that her parents would have to call back for further information to set anything up. It was the only number she called.

Self-employment was her new Dad's goal in life and he got right to it, borrowing money from his own father in order to buy a small industrial catering company. It was a single big walk-in truck, white with red letters emblazoned on the side: Letano's Lucky Lunchbox ~ On the Road Since 1939. Mr. Letano had been in business for forty greasy grueling years, and he gladly sold his life's work to Sunny's parents—the attractive young couple with three grubby, but smiling kids; the family just starting out together. Watching them drive away after signing the papers, Mr. Letano chewed thoughtfully at one of his calloused fingers. He pondered the wife, who had been so excited about being a business owner, and the young daughter, cautiously proud of her parents. Blindly trusting the men to handle the complexities of business from the start—as his own wife and children had, they would make ready slaves.

From that day, the truck and all its trappings was known simply as "The Business" and it took over the converted triple-decker Victorian house they purchased soon after. Dad built a dish-washing room in the basement with a giant stainless steel sink and an industrial meat slicer. They glinted in the dark of the cellar like something lying in wait. Sunny's Mom made all the truck food in their kitchen, crawling from bed at 4 am to cook 20 pounds of hamburger, miles of Polish sausage and dozens of muffins.

Sunny was quickly put to work. The first day they got the Business running, stepdad handed her an old wooden milk crate covered with cobwebs from the bowels of the cellar. "Take this out to the hose and wash it off," he told her. It was her first official chore and she set to it, tying on her official white apron, folded in half so it didn't drag the ground. She brought the crate back to him three times before he was satisfied with the thoroughness of her work. Her apron was already filthy.

On Fridays she often walked to the ice cream stand around the corner with her week's earnings. "Take that apron off before you go!" Stepdad barked at her.

"Why?" Sunny asked. She felt the apron made her look professional and tough, and had been excited to show it off to anyone who saw her.

"Because there are child labor laws," Dad muttered. Sunny had no idea what this meant, and she begrudgingly stripped off the apron. As the months went by, she found ways to sneak out with the apron on for her trip to the ice cream stand. She was curious to know what would happen if someone saw her wearing it. To her disappointment, no one ever even commented.

Sunny's mother was a meticulous list-maker, and Sunny came home from school every day to a written litany of urgent jobs from washing pans in the basement to doing a good deal of housework so her exhausted mother could get to bed early. Gradually an awareness crept into her mind that her young life was considerably less carefree than that of her friends. Hard work was the order of every day, and she was paid five dollars a week for the services of her young hands. When she complained she heard the words "values", "responsibility" and "character" intoned. She dutifully looked these up in a dictionary to see what she was in for.

In her stepfather, Sunny found a competitor in all things. She vied constantly with him for the attention of her mother, and usually ended up feeling beaten. And no matter how hard she worked, there was no denying that Dad worked the hardest. Up at 3:30 every morning, he shoveled acres of snow from in front of the truck throughout the winter, ever-present cigarette clenched in his teeth. He spent the day driving the truck and churning out sandwiches with lightening speed while his wife worked in tandem serving coffee and donuts, soup and sodas and making change. In the evenings there were mountains of bookkeeping to be tended to with teeth clenched even harder as he went over the piles of bills and receipts. The repetition of each day's workload lent a merciless rhythm to the household, an endless treadmill with no off switch.

In the Spring, after months of nail biting, Sunny had the good fortune to catch Dad on the right day. She gave him her best smile and asked once more if he would pleeeeeease call Appledale Farm and help her take riding lessons. To her surprise, he agreed.

Sunny watched as Dad called, and heard the same crisp voice answer. Dad spent twenty minutes nodding and "mm-hmming" while the woman on the other line commandeered the conversation. It was an odd occurrence. Dad was a man who took charge of every situation he found himself in, but he was impressed with whatever this woman had said and told Sunny that she could ride there.

"You'll have to pay for your own lessons if you really want to do it," he added firmly. They would find plenty of chores for her so she could earn the ten bucks every week. Sunny didn't care about the work. She was too busy wondering about the mystery woman who ran her new barn.

Appledale nestled in the rolling hills of North Andover, Massachusetts, a few minutes away from Sunny's home in Lawrence. Though it was only across the river, it was a world away, as different as pewter and charcoal. Lawrence was gritty, an small mill city long past its heyday, with a hefty share of crime. North Andover was a lush, lovely place, full of quiet money. There were farms and orchards there, and quaint old New England farmsteads on rambling acres that housed generations of people who had never in their lives crossed the river into Lawrence.

Tucked into a corner of this was Appledale Farm, or, as everyone who knew Sunny came to call it: the Barn. It was a small, private stable. One barn, one riding ring, one sturdy old home that housed the Dixons—Harry and Elizabeth—the staunch New Englanders that owned the place.

The term "riding instructor" did not apply to Elizabeth Dixon. She had done nothing but train horses and the proper young ladies who rode them since the 1950's. Thin-lipped and pale, with short, no-nonsense gray hair, Elizabeth Dixon held herself with the grace and carriage of a perfectly trained rider. No one ever called her Liz.

The Dixons had two children, and Appledale had helped put them both through college. Harry was still handsome with his bristly white hair and lively grin. He had worked as a supervisor for the electric company for thirty years. Over the course of time he'd become an excellent trainer in his own right and, after securing his early retirement with the hefty sale of Appledale's back acreage to developers, he'd dedicated his time to the farm and its upkeep.

They trained American Saddlebred horses. The breed was termed "America's Horse"—Elizabeth informed Sunny at her first lesson—because it was the first breed of horse developed in the New World. It was created by Southern plantation owners who wanted a graceful, smooth-gaited mount on whom they could supervise their vast fields. Through the centuries the Saddlebred became a popular show horse with an international following. "And that's how today's Saddleseat horse show circuit came about," Elizabeth finished the rather lengthy lecture.

Sunny would learn on her own that Saddlebreds are the supermodels of the horse world: high maintenance, high strung and drop dead gorgeous. And very expensive. Year after year the Dixons took malleable, horse-crazy young girls and turned them into sleek, professional competitors. Young ladies who succeeded in the world of Saddleseat Equitation were self-assured, long-legged and willow thin; wrapped securely in their family's money—which allowed them to indulge this fancy in the first place. Sunny Quinn could not have been less qualified. Not only was she short but like the other women in her family she tended to carry a few extra pounds on her lower half. It was weight that no one would ever notice. No one in the real world anyway. But the world of competitive Equitation would hold a well-polished magnifying glass to those sturdy peasant thighs and shake its dignified head with disdain.

In Saddle Seat Equitation classes, the rider's poise and skill are judged ahead of their mount, as opposed to adult competition where the horse is the focal point. One could ride Equitation until the age of eighteen and there were many levels of competition from local and regional shows all the way up to the World's Championship Horse Show at the Kentucky State Fair. For Equitation riders the finale of each season was the Saddleseat Triple Crown; three national competitions know on the inside as "The Good Hands", "The Medal", and "The Challenge Cup".

These lofty titles with their shiny trophies and long colorful championship ribbons came to swim in Sunny's mind like distant, unreachable constellations. Her world was quickly defined by the four walls of the Barn. She lived for her lesson on Saturday mornings and spent the rest of the week doing deep knee bends to strengthen her legs and scrubbing pans for the money to ride. The stainless steel scrubber she used chewed her nails down to ragged nubs, and her hands turned red and pulpy in the steaming water. But she scrubbed furiously, burning with the fervor of a recent convert. The fierce beauty of the American Saddlebred had hooked her absolutely.

Sunny came home from school one day to find that her Mom had a surprise. They all gathered around the dinner table for the announcement.

"We're going to have a new baby!" Mom said in a happy sing-song voice, beaming at her young husband. Sunny's little brothers giggled with excited approval. Sunny forced a smile. A baby meant one thing to her: yet another newcomer with whom to share her mother.

Two days after Sunny's eleventh birthday, a son, named after his father and universally known as "Buddy", arrived by C-section. He had a full head of silver hair and eyes like sapphires. Sunny fell in love with him in spite of herself. She helped out a lot with her new baby brother, often putting the baby to bed after her exhausted parents had already turned in. She got in the habit of "dancing" the little one to sleep, playing the stereo in the dark living room and bouncing and swaying him to the music, Buddy's chubby heft galvanizing the muscles in Sunny's little arms.

Everything seemed to be expanding at the time, the size of the family, the amount of money coming in, and with it all, Sunny's responsibilities. The Business demanded a slavish amount of work but over time it began to pay off, just as Dad had promised. He was a short man, not much taller than Mom, and like all runts he'd learned excessive toughness as a means of survival. He was impossible to intimidate, and not above using threats and physical bullying to take routes from other industrial catering companies. As a result, Letano's Lucky Lunchbox became the number one "rolling kitchen" in the city.

It quickly became clear to Harry and Elizabeth Dixon that young Sunshine was not just a starry-eyed Saturday afternoon hobbyist. On the ground she was bashful and introverted, obviously more at ease with animals than with people, and she possessed a quiet internal nature to which the horses seemed drawn. But once she swung into the saddle, a self-assured, aggressive inner strength emerged.

"She really has the touch," Harry said simply.

"If she'd just lose ten or fifteen pounds I'd love to put her in the maiden class next spring on one of the Jarreck's older horses," Elizabeth mused aloud one day while fixing Harry a sandwich. "Her parents own their own business as far as I know. It wouldn't cost all that much to lease a horse for the summer. I don't see why they don't chip in and help her."

Sunny spent much of her time wondering the same thing. There were several other girls her age that rode at Appledale. Their parents brought them to their lessons in shiny new cars with fat tires that crunched smugly on the gravel drive. They usually stayed to watch their daughters' lessons from the screen house Harry had built beside the ring. When the girls progressed to a certain level, the Dixons went horse shopping with them, driving hours into Maine, Connecticut or New York state to look at prospective mounts.

Sunny's parents had no time for such extravagances. Their sixteen hour days made sure of that. Making the Business grow was the overriding goal of their household and a spazzed out energy constantly hung in the air. Sunny wished she had a buck for every time her parents used the words "stressed" or "frazzled". She'd have a World Champion equitation horse by now. When they weren't slaving away, Sunny's parents spent their little remaining time enjoying the fruits of their mighty labor. Mom was a sun-worshipper and spent her afternoons by the in-ground pool in the backyard, keeping one eye on the boys playing and baking her skin to brown perfection.


Excerpted from The Iron Horse by Dawn Erin Copyright © 2011 by Dawn Erin. 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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