Set in rural Wisconsin in 1962, Noble Guardian is a young girl's journey through loss and abandonment after the death of her mother and the disappearance of her runaway brother. Though it seems an impossible dream, she wants a family and when her father saves an injured champion horse, mysterious things start to happen.
Rubicon, WI 1962
Summer had just begun and we already had a scorcher of a day. My friends and I had planned a shopping trip on our first day of vacation. My dad wasn't around, so I put on a pair of short-shorts. They were black with a white belt, and I tucked in a white and black, striped short-sleeved blouse. I wore a white headband with my hair down, that reached to the middle of my back. I slipped my feet into white sling backs and stood before the mirror.
I knew my dad wouldn't like it. He was kind of a stick in the mud, but I didn't plan on running into him. I always managed to avoid him, well at least as much as possible. I picked up my oversized purse and stuffed in a pair of pedal pushers just in case.
My friend, Mac, was picking me up for shopping. I had just started down the stairs when the phone rang. I hesitated. The phone rang a lot because my dad was a veterinarian but every time, I'd wonder for only a second; if this time, I'd hear my brother's voice.
Grandma hung up and came to the bottom of the stairs. "You're daddy needs you to bring him some meds."
I suddenly felt chilled in my short shorts, goose bump city. I was going shopping. We heard Woolworths had Bobby Vinton's latest .45, Roses are Red.We had been crazy about that song all spring. "Meds? Where is he?"
"He's at the Kingswell place."
I was stunned. "The Kingswells? Starlit Stables? Why is he there?"
My dad wasn't a mobile vet. He felt horses were long hours and low pay. The Kingswell's place was a large horse-breeding farm a mile and a half down Flagstaff road, just past the filling station on the intersection of County C and R. It was even closer if one would cut through our cornfield.
Starlit Stables went on forever with beautifully white washed fences and acres of rolling grass that would wave in the breeze. The buildings were a beautiful country red brick and silver cones topped off the silos, reflecting the sun.
On a bright day, I could see that shining beacon from here. Despite the fact, I'd have to see my dad and miss Bobby Vinton. I wouldn't pass on the chance to see that place. "What does he need?"
"He said to tell you, ES drugs, IV supplies, and that you'd know what he needed."
"He's putting a horse down."
"I think the horse was injured. He has pain meds on-board. Just do as your daddy asked." She motioned to my clothes. "And, ah, I know you have some pedal pushers tucked in that purse. Put them on."
I turned on the stairs and walked back up to the landing, knowing I had to climb into farm mode again, leaving my short shorts on hold. I could see the door to my brother's room. It was closed, like it had been for four years. But I'm fifteen, the same age he was when he left, so on occasion I've used his t-shirts for grub duty. They probably wouldn't fit him anymore anyway.
I opened the door quietly and stepped inside. I purposely didn't look at his room, just his dresser. I opened the top drawer and pulled out a navy blue short-sleeved tee shirt. The knob was broken on one side and it caught when I pushed it back, slamming against the wooden frame. The dresser wiggled and knocked off a picture frame. I picked it up, but I wasn't quick enough to stop myself from looking at it.
In the picture, my brother sat on a beautiful horse, and standing next to him, my mother. A championship ribbon hung from the horse's bridle. I remembered that horse, Whiskey, was his barn name and Kyle's favorite. I slammed the picture face down, angry I had been drawn into it.
As I started out the door, I noticed Kyle's old Red Ryder BB gun standing up in the corner behind the dresser. I remembered the year he got that for Christmas. To the front of it were a stack of presents he's received from all of us over the years, hoping one Christmas or birthday, he'd come home. He's never been here to open them.
I started. Grandmother was the only one who cleaned Kyle's room and had kept it unchanged. But it was my dad who wanted the door shut at all times. "Sorry, I sometimes use Kyle's shirts for barn work."
"I know, I've seen them in the wash."
For a brief moment, we looked at each other, a moment of grief. Kyle was four years older than me. He had a workshop in the stables. He'd spend many a day tinkering on an old 1931 Indian motorcycle that my grandfather had given him. Once Kyle got it running, he had it titled and plated. He drove it around the property nearly daily, no matter how much snow.
The day after our mother died, he rode out of here and never came back. I haven’t seen or heard from him in years. The police came by a couple of times. They found the motorcycle had been sold and that Kyle had emptied out his bank account.
As an only child, I hated being here. I spend most of my time at Mac's place. They still had horses, so we do a fair amount of riding in the summer. My mother used to have horses but right before she died, my dad sold them and never again did we have horses on our property. The place was in ruins. All that's left is a rundown stable, barn, a leaky roofed indoor arena, and a weedy outdoor. No horses, ever again. I was fifteen and lived on this old, forgotten, farm with my dad and grandma.
My grandmother hurried me along to change and closed the door to Kyle's room again. She put her arm around my shoulder, knowing the hurt I was feeling.
"Get dressed, hon, here are the keys to the truck." She pointed to my head. "And brush out that tease in your hair, seeing you daddy."
After changing into rider jeans, my brother's large t-shirt, and a black pair of jeepers, I combed out my hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. I called Mac and cancelled our shopping plans. I went into my dad’s home office about as often as I ever talked to him, but I did know where the medications were and how to package them. Within minutes, I was ready to leave.
I climbed into the old truck and cranked the engine. I didn't have a license to drive but there was an old 1948 Thriftmaster that my dad's let me drive since I was fourteen, as long as I'm on the back roads. It's a tuxedo black with dark red bench seats, and it has the gearshift on the steering column. I could barely reach the pedals but it worked.
I turned down the long drive to the Kingswell place, driving under the archway that said Starlit Stables.I could see my dad’s vet truck outside. I parked next to his vehicle. With meds in hand, I entered the stables through the first door off the drive.
My mouth nearly dropped at the sight of this place. It was more than I imagined. The stalls were made of a fine wood, maybe maple, with green bars and all brass fittings that looked to have just arrived from the hardware store. The aisle was paved with beautiful stone concrete.
I heard voices from an indoor arena. I moved close to the door and peeked in through the opening. My dad was nowhere in sight. A trainer stood center of the ring while a rider and horse circled the far end.
I recognized the rider. He was the youngestKingswell boy, James William. He was in my grade at school, but I never talked to him. I wondered why everyone called him James William. I'm Allison Mary but forever called Al. But,James William was rich, and I wasn’t. So maybe it was a rich thing.
He flew over a jump that I guessed might be four feet high or more. He cantered, which is a slower gallop, and the horse made another spectacular jump. He halted in the corner. James William, the most popular boy in school, turned his mount to look directly at me. The trainer turned following his gaze. James William rode his mount to the door.
I had never talked to him in school. His circles of friends were the rich kids from the Meadows Lake Estate area. He had become famous for his riding competitions on a horse named Noble Guardian. But he was a black horse and James William was riding a bay.Dressed in riding clothes, he wore a fedora on his head. Known for his looks, he distracted me. My mouth went dry and I could feel my pulse pounding like a fool as he locked his eyes on me.
"Nice ride." I said, feeling incredibly dumb.
"Thanks," he said, but not in an appreciative way, but more of question. "Dr. Nethers…he's your dad?"
"Ah." I was surprised he knew who I was, but why would I be here?"Yeah, yeah, I'm Allison. I had to bring some medications over."
"Tell him to do it quickly."James William didn’t wait for a response but turned his horse back to the other end of the arena preparing for another run at the course.
“Where do I find my dad?” I asked but he had turned away from me.
His trainer pointed to the door. “Straight out and to your left.”
“Thank you.” As I turned, I caught a quick glance from James William and I knew in that instance, from that wounded look in his eyes, the injured horse was his.
* * *
The stables had three separate aisles that seemed longer than a football field with a single aisle dividing them in half. I had to find my dad somewhere in this maze of stalls. I walked up that middle aisle and could hear men talking. I did as instructed, turned left and started toward the conversation. My dad stepped out of a stall and caught sight of me.
"Allison, do you have the stuff?" He reached toward me.
I placed the bag in his hand.
"Go home," he said, but I didn't. I had to know. Was Noble Guardian injured?
Inside the stall, I could see a horse, black in color. A cold chill raced through my body. He was lying on his side. Though compromised in some way, he appeared aware of the activity around him. My dad seemed to be at odds with the two other men as they remained in the aisle. While they argued, I slipped into the stall and sat down near the horse’s head. I stroked the long side of his face and straightened his wispy forelock. Noble Guardian. I had seen him in some shows and pictures of him in the local paper. He moved his head slightly to see me, but he seemed worried. I slid under his head and held it in my lap. His front leg had been casted as a temporary hold. My chest burned with worry. My head started to pound.
My dad came in and dropped to his knees next to the horse, opening up the bag I brought him. I could see frustration all over his face. I never talked much with my dad, well not since Kyle left. When I did my stomach would ache liked someone had kicked me in the belly but this was important. "Dad?"
"Don’t, Allison, it’s not my decision. I told you to go home.”
"He tripped going over a jump, fractured a splint." I understood enough to know a splint was a thin bone that ran parallel to the large cannon, the leg bone. Ouch.
"Can't that be fixed?" He nodded but very slightly. He didn’t want to get into that discussion with me. But I figured he involved me when he asked me to bring the drugs that would end the life of this beautiful horse. "Why don’t they want it fixed?"
"It's displaced, needs surgical repair." He motioned to his portable x-ray machine. "No guarantee that he’ll be able to jump again, like he apparently had."
"Apparently?" I looked down at the horse who had trustingly settled in my arms. "Do you know who this is?"
"Who? The horse?"
"Yeah, the horse. This is Noble Guardian, took finals in State, and swept all the competitions. He's a professional champion." I couldn’t believe I was so close to a horse that had become a local legend. We lived in horse country. Horse shows always made the local news. "There were rumors at school. He was going to Madison Square Garden next."
I stroked the smooth coat on his face and ran my fingers over the neatly manicured ears. He was magnificent in spite of his injury. "Dad?"
My dad sighed and glanced at me over his thick black glasses. "I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no."
"Would they give him to us?" I ignored his no. "We have the facilities and –"
"Dad, I can tell you don’t want to do this."
"He’s twelve, badly injured, and they don't want to pay for the surgery, Al."
My dad rarely used my nickname, so the seriousness of his response nearly drained me of hope. Still, I couldn’t let go of such a beautiful animal. I watched as my dad ran the fluid through the IV. "But you can fix him."
Dad sighed and leaned back on his haunches before getting up, giving me a glimmer of hope. I looked up at him. "Dad, I know you see this is wrong."
"Al, this is not up to us."
"They called you. Who's their vet?"
"He quit, let me guess why." He shook his head in dismay. "Horse owners are a breed all their own."
"Ask them, please."
"You have no idea what would be involved here."
"I do, I've taken care of horses before."
"No, Kyle did, you helped."
I blinked, hearing my brother’s name on my dad’s lips sounded so strange. To my dad, Kyle was a ghost who never existed. But he was right, Kyle knew horses. "I know, but what I don’t know I can learn. Please, dad, ask them."
I slid out from under Noble Guardian's head as if we had made the final decision.
"Al, no." He motioned for me to leave the stall but I didn't move.
The other men, who had been a part of the discussion, entered the stall. "I called and checked. Decision's been made. Put him down,Nethers."
My dad bristled from that directive. Leaving his well-earned title of DVM off his name probably wasn’t an intended insult, just lack of respect. To hear my mother tell it, my dad was a war hero who had tabled his education to fight for his country, finishing after discharge. He was never intimidated and always stood his ground. My dad didn’t react well to the directive. I moved to stand next to him. It was a move of solidarity, support, though doubted if it meant anything to my dad.
"No, let me have him,"Dad said.
I fought a gasp. I was winning and couldn’t keep a smile from stealing my lips.
"What?" The man looked at my dad as if he had three ears.
"The horse, you want him put down, I can fix him."
I didn't like my dad much, but I was very proud of him. Suddenly, James William approached. His step hurried and determined. I hoped he was coming to rescue a beautiful horse who had served him so well. The look on his face said otherwise and put me on notice. I glanced up at my dad to see if he was ready. But before anything more was said, another man came through the stable door and marched down the aisle to where we all stood.
"Mr. Kingswell." My father acknowledged. "It would be worth doing surgery to repair the fracture. He could be good in four to eight weeks."
"With screws? This is a twelve year old horse, Nethers, with a broken leg." Mr. Kingswell was a tall, broad shouldered man, with deep ridges in his forehead and protruding eyebrows. In some ways, he simply frightened me. I glanced over at James William trying to see the resemblance, but saw none. He must take his handsome looks from his mother.
"A broken splint, his leg is sound, no damage to his knee. I can fix this horse."
I had no idea why my father had raised the banner on this, though I knew he never liked the Kingswells. When Kyle lived here, he was good friends with one of the older boys, Bobby Jay.
The senior Kingswell stepped forward. "You were called here to do a job. Either you do it or I'll do it with a shotgun."
I sucked in air. My heart was hammering in my ears. I wanted to scream at that man, but I knew better. Instead, I rolled my fingers in fists and stared at James William, willing him to save this horse. He was watching me just as intently. He broke eye contact and pulled off his fedora. "Dad, let the doctor take him and see what he can do."
His father growled like a bear rudely awoken from hibernation. "You get back into that arena and practice."
"Not until I know Alvaro will get a chance. What difference would it make? The cost is on Dr. Nethers, if he chooses to do the surgery."
"Alvaro?" I asked. "I thought he was Noble Guardian."
"He is." James William looked directly at me with incredibly blue eyes. Despite the situation, they had warmth to them that I liked. "His barn name."
His father took a deep breath and blew out what I could only assume was resignation. "Fine, Nethers, but you get him to your place."
My dad nodded, but in that short glance he gave me, we both knew we didn’t have a means to do that.
"I'll be back later to give him more for the pain." My dad snapped his bag shut and handed it to me to carry. He picked up the x-ray machine and motioned for me to follow him. We pushed through the door as a team. My dad stopped. He was frosted and for that moment, I think some of that anger was at me. I knew that I had interfered with his job, but I had to. Surely, he understood that.
Or maybe not. "I know, I know, I shouldn’t have—"
He raised his hand to silence me, shaking his head. "It wasn't you. I let them get to me."
"But you saved a horse because of it."
"We haven’t saved him yet. We have no trailer and I don’t know if the surgery will work." He motioned toward our old truck. "You go home. Now."
"Dad? Is that why you didn't come to get the drugs yourself?"
He stopped loading his supplies and looked at me. "Why what?"
He sighed. "If I had left the scene…"
I nodded that I understood. He had saved Noble Guardian before I had arrived. A little pang of guilt worked through my head. I was unhappy to have my shopping day interrupted and here my dad was trying to save a horse.
"I don't know if the surgery will work, Allison."
"I understand." I climbed in and started the engine. As I backed up to pull away, I saw James William standing by the outdoor paddock. I knew as certain as I knew my own heart. We both felt that indescribable bond of loving a horse. I had none, he had a hundred, but we both had Noble Guardian.
I waited for what seemed like hours beyond my dad's clinic schedule. Grandma's pot roast had gone cold by the time he pulled into the drive. I swear he would have knocked my socks off, if I had been wearing any. Behind his vet wagon was a two-horse trailer.
I raced outside just as he pulled into the yard and parked. "Dad, where did you get this?"
"I borrowed the trailer from a client. That means we have a lot to do tomorrow. We have three days to move him."
"We?" The word sounded so foreign to me, I wasn’t sure I had heard it.
"Yeah, we."He replied. But hearing it again didn’t make it any more palatable.
"Okay." I swallowed the bitter taste, waiting to hear what "we" meant.
"Tomorrow we'll do surgery at the Starlit Stables, then bring him home."
I was so excited I felt my feet leave the ground like a huge electrical surge had raced through my body and popped the cork. I wanted to hug my dad. It was a strange feeling to want to throw my arms around his neck and thank him, but I didn’t. I couldn't. Instead, I just stood there wondering what I had to do with surgery. I wasn’t queasy, but I sure as heck had my limits. Blood and gore belonged on the movie screen. But I’d have to suck that up and do this. I wanted Noble Guardian more than anything and this was the only way to get him.
I don’t remember even having supper that night, but as I lay in bed, I couldn't believe I was gettingNoble Guardian. There was a knock on my door. I glanced at the clock on my dresser. It was almost eleven.
"Allison?" my dad asked.
"Yeah?" I answered before he opened the door.
"Set your alarm for three thirty. We will do the surgery at four and ah… I made a deal with Kingswell. Three days mucking for three days rent." He glanced at me over those black rimmed glasses. "And guess who I volunteered for mucking those stalls?"
For a split second, I caught a little tease in his eyes, but it vanished before I was sure. "I’m thinking it's me. I'll be there."
There was an awkward moment. My dad stood there for a second or two. I should have said thank you, but it was too hard to find kind words for him despite the rolling snow ball that sucked us inward, as we tumbled down this unchartered hill.
"In the morning. Good night, Allison."
"Good night, dad."
After the door closed, I pushed back my summer blankets and tip toed to the window to look out. The dark, mournful, shadows that usually hung all around the old stables and barn, had changed in the soft moonlight. Even the tall weeds in the outdoor arena swayed in the night’s breeze. Life was coming back to this farm, life in the shape of a beautiful black horse.