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Excerpt from "Tell Me When It Hurts"

Chapter 3

by Christine M. Whitehead


NOTE: Archer Loh has retreated to a Berkshire Mountain cabin after the murder of her daughter, leaving behind all that mattered to her once: her husband, her career, and her passion for her horses. A former Olympic rider, Archer has lost all that makes life worth living. When a rancher from Wyoming inherits property next to hers, everything changes. Excerpt picks up here. 

Archer sat on the couch reading, legs tucked under her, sipping her second cup of coffee. Hadley snoozed loudly at her feet. A few days had passed since Connor McCall’s unasked-for appearance on her doorstep. The day was bright and cool—a good day for riding, she thought reflexively.

She laid down her book and stood up. “Hadley, go for a walk?”

The lab lifted her head, then lumbered off the couch and shook herself. Archer grabbed her cell phone and shoved it into the back pocket of her jeans, hesitated a moment, then stepped over to the refrigerator and pulled out a bag of carrots, and headed out, bag swinging.

As Archer rounded the bend near her neighbor’s camp, she saw no one except Millie, the paint horse.

“Hello?” she called. “Anyone home?” No answer. She called again and advanced a few more cautious steps. Silence. Satisfied that no one was around, Archer slowly approached Millie.

The horse, munching lazily on a lush patch of grass and timothy, raised her head. Ears twitching, tail swishing, she eyed the newcomer for a second, then went back to her grazing. Archer moved closer until she could just touch the horse, then reached into the bag and held out a carrot.

The black and white head lifted. Downy lips trembled, then grasped the carrot. The mare began to munch and immediately stretched out her neck for more.

Archer felt warm, moist breath on her hand. “Oh, you like that, don’t you, girl?” She ran her palm down the horse’s muzzle and stepped closer, offering another carrot.

When the carrots were gone, Archer turned to leave, giving Millie’s rump a pat. A little cloud of dust rose. “You need a grooming, girl. You’d shine with a little work.”

Before she left, Archer leaned into the mare’s neck, inhaling deeply. Then she looked at her watch and pulled away. “Come on, Hadley. Gotta go.” She hesitated. “Maybe . . . maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, Millie.” And she headed down the path toward home, humming softly.

* * *

The next morning at about the same time, Archer found herself back at the camp. Again finding no one around, she plied the mare with molasses treats and three peppermint candies. Then she unrolled an old towel on the ground and started pulling things from a tan canvas bag: a hoof pick, three brushes, a tail comb with wide teeth, and a spray bottle of detangler.

“Here we go, Millie,” she murmured. “I’ll make you the talk of the mountain.”

Then she grabbed the hoof pick and began to work.

For the next hour, Archer cleaned and combed and groomed, talking steadily while she worked. This was the first time since she was thirteen that she didn’t have her own horse—unless you counted Allegra, which she didn’t.

It had happened quickly, her falling in love with the horses that jumped. When she was eight, at her first horse show, she’d stood, fingers curled around the boards of a rough-hewn fence, and peered through the gaps, watching every move the thoroughbreds made. By the time she went home, she had a goal: to ride open jumpers where only the best rode, wherever that was.

Taittinger’s Clique, known outside the show ring as just Clique, was Archer’s first horse. At only 16.1 hands, he was small to be a world-class jumper, but he had all the other right stuff: perfect jumping conformation, superb athletic ability, and a “just point me at it” love of taking fences. It was enough; he made it work. While Archer loved him for being a stand-out athlete, she loved him even more for being her best friend at a time when she needed one.

Smiling at the memory, she moved behind Millie and went to work on her tail. She separated a small clump of hair from the rest of the tail, sprayed it, and began teasing out the tangles with the comb tines. Working a small section at a time, she combed through the knots patiently, and within twenty minutes, Millie’s tail was silky and loose, floating behind her when the breeze caught it.

Moving in close for the final touches, Archer slid the soft bristles of the finishing brush down the mare’s face, whisking away small hairs and debris with long, loving strokes. Millie’s ears relaxed and her eyes half closed, as if she were savoring the last minutes of a really heavenly facial.

Millie gleamed, the dapples shining on her dark flanks. Archer stepped back to admire her work and grinned, then scooped the brushes up and put them in the canvas bag. Leaning her head against Millie’s neck for a second, she gave the horse a final pat, called Hadley, and headed home.

* * *

The next day was raining, but Archer trotted toward the camp at nine o’clock anyway, leaving Hadley home. She approached cautiously, though she was pretty sure that her neighbor—Connor McCall, was it?—was away daily until ten thirty, performing his morning ablutions at the Motel 6. She slowed as the tent came into view. Millie greeted her with a nicker and was rewarded with a few slices of apple. Archer gave her a pat, then looked around.

The tent flap had blown open. She walked over and bent to pull it closed. As she did, she spotted a loose-leaf notebook, lying open on the sleeping bag. She glanced back over her shoulder, then stepped in. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness.

The tent was big, perhaps fourteen by seven feet. It had a mesh vent along the back wall, a skylight, a gear loft for storage, two pockets for more storage, and a mesh window to let the air in but keep the bugs out. Steel poles at the corners held it firm and sturdy. The sleeping bag along the back wall had a patchwork quilt pulled over it, and a portable CD player sat within easy reach. In the front right corner, next to a director’s chair, were a radio, a gas lantern, and a big flashlight. On a blanket in the far left corner were piles of books and papers, and a separate pile of folded jeans and T-shirts.

She took another step in, then back out, then in. Gazing to her left, she eyed the tidy pile of books. She knelt down and glanced at some titles. Fathers and Daughters: In their own words; The Long-Distance Parent: How to Parent from Afar, by George L. Thoreau; The Business of Sheep Ranching, by Duncan Walsh; The World According to Garp, by John Irving; Passages, by Gail Sheehey.

She then moved to the sleeping bag and flipped through the CDs piled near the portable player: Sinatra, Coltrane, Enya. . . Enya? He likes Enya? Brooks and Dunn—eclectic tastes.

Then her eye fell back on the notebook. She sat down on the sleeping bag and glanced at the open page.

Lauren’s birthday is coming up soon. October 1. She’ll be nine. I wonder if she’ll have a party. . . .

Archer flipped back to the beginning of the notebook: pages of script, pasted tickets, some photos, a few postcards, more script. On one page she saw a photo of a woman standing in front of a fruit stand, smiling. The sign on the stand read “Rose’s Berry Farm.” On the opposite page, a teenage boy was beaming at the camera, holding a gray horse on a lead rope. On the bottom, a caption was scrawled in ballpoint: “Sabrina and Me.” Turning the page again, she saw a postcard of the Eiffel Tower, with a note under it: Maybe Lauren would like to see this someday. Is she taking French this year?

About to turn another page, Archer looked away, feeling guilty. Had she really sunk this low? She closed the notebook with a snap, then, remembering it had been open when she arrived, reopened it. She went outside, and Millie looked up.

“Till tomorrow, Millie,” she said, and headed home.

* * *

In a fitful Maker’s Mark sleep that night, Archer remembered it all again: Clique standing alert, practically on tiptoes, ears pricked forward, shifting his weight from side to side, waiting at the entrance gate for his turn, the glint of bit at the edges of his mouth, the sound of him champing it between his teeth, the scent of lanolin and saddle soap on soft oiled leather. Madison Square Garden on a June night. The Garden—the place she had dreamed of long ago, not even knowing its name. The place where only the best rode.

It was all there, clear as yesterday, from the quick pat on Clique’s neck to her own little shiver as she squeezed him lightly. The horse moving under her, gaining momentum, the customary canter in a perfect circle before starting the course . . . Some murmuring in the background as horse and rider set off at a steady pace . . . the acceleration as she pressed him forward into the bit . . . the building impulsion . . .

As Archer took her first jump, the Garden quieted. The crowd watched the girl and her beautiful horse move in unison over jumps taller than she was. They went over with no hesitation. Now, she thought, squeezing with her calves just behind the girth . . . now . . . The coiled spring released in an upward sweep of energy as they jumped the five-and-a-half-foot wall. Jump, stride, stride, jump, jump, stride, stride, jump, stride, jump, jump, and jump. When they completed the last jump with no faults at breakneck speed, the moment was captured, distilled—timeless.

It was all there. In that dreamy softness between sleep and almost sleep, Archer summoned the exquisite triumph again. At twenty-one, a senior at Smith College, she had lived her one spectacular moment, the moment that would carry her through a lifetime of ordinary, the one that would be retrieved for sustenance when life fell short. The floating canter around the outer edge of the arena; her gloved hand caressing Clique’s neck; Adam’s cheers, identifiable above all others; her father, catching her eye, wiping away a tear as he sat anonymous and proud in the stands, tweed jacket across his lap, felt hat resting on one knee; her own wide smile; and the feel of the horse beneath her making her strong.


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