One to Lose – Chapter 1

 Jesse Marsh stepped off the school bus.  Dark storm clouds boiled above the Maine horizon. Just what she needed:  more rain. She sputtered her lips in frustration.  There were only twenty-seven days till the Aroostook Classic and Jesse still had a lot of work to do with her palomino, Starbuck.  He just didn’t understand that when Jesse slid her leg back behind the girth, and added the rest of the cues, he shouldn’t go forward, but pivot instead.  They’d worked on this Turn-on-the-Forehand almost every day for two weeks now, and he still wanted to go forward.  Tonight, her best friend Lauren Saucier was coming over to give her a hand.
Jesse dug into her right front jeans pocket for a molasses treat for Starbuck.  Her fingers closed on the smooth oblong nugget, and she pulled it out.  She held it to her nose, inhaled the deep molasses tang, and smiled.  She loved the smell of Starbuck’s treats.  Behind her, the bus trundled away down the sparse country road.
Only then did she look up at Starbuck’s pasture, sweeping her gaze across the grass that swayed in the thick summer wind to the yawning loafing shed.  Where was Starbuck?  Her palomino always greeted her with a whinny and an exuberant nod.  The metal gate of his pasture hung wide open, leaning on the tip.  She could have sworn she’d closed it that morning.  Now she’d have to go look for him.  It would take forever to find him in the woods tonight.
The wind gusted against her, tugging a long tendril of her dark brown hair into her face.  She tucked the treat she’d been holding for Starbuck back into her pocket and swiped at her hair.  A harsh ‘bang’ came from the direction of the barn. Adrenaline shot through her, and she jerked her head that direction.  The barn door swung back and forth in the wind, flinging back against the wall with another loud crash.  Just the wind playing havoc.  She laughed at herself and shook her head. Spook.
Tall gray clouds scudded ahead of a dark line above the Maine horizon.  It looked like a bad storm coming.  The air felt heavy and smelled wet, like rain…again.  She’d have to hurry to find Starbuck.
She ran into her and her dad’s house and dropped her schoolbag onto their green kitchen table.  Maybe her dad had seen the weather and come home early, like last time when he’d saddled Starbuck for her ride with Lauren.  In which case, he would have taken Starbuck next door to the Saucier’s stable.  But then, why hadn’t he met her there when the bus stopped to let Lauren off?  She tapped her fingernail on the table.  Something didn’t feel right.  He would have let her know if he’d done something with Starbuck.  The red light on the answering machine didn’t blink at all. No messages.
She reached for her cell phone and called the Saucier’s stable, but only got their answering machine.  “This is Jesse.  If Starbuck is down there, or my father is down there with Starbuck, would you please call back and leave a message? Starbuck might have gotten out of his pasture.  I’m going to go look for him.  Please tell Lauren.  Thanks, bye.”
Jesse set the phone down.  It might take awhile for the Sauciers to check their messages.  She could check if her dad came home early just by calling his office at the Farm and Ag building.  She picked up the phone again and punched the third speed dial button.  Her father answered on the second ring.  That clinched it. “Dad, I guess I left the gate open this morning and Starbuck’s gone.  I don’t know where he is, and no one is answering at Saucier’s stable.  Can you come home and help me look for him?”
He sighed.  “Jess, I’m kinda snowed under here.”
“Dad, please!  It’s getting ready to storm again.”
“Alright.  Let me organize a few things here, and I’ll be on the way.  It’ll be about fifteen minutes.  I’ll check Saucier’s on my way through.”
“Thanks Dad.”  Jesse hung up.  What a time for her to lose Starbuck.  Now, she’d have to spend her training time looking for him.  She walked down the hallway to go upstairs.  Glancing into the living room on her way past, her heart skipped a beat.  Books and magazines lay strewn across the floor.  The TV stand lay on its side.  She stepped into the room.  The TV was missing.  Her father’s trophies, the stereo, the DVD player and the game cube:  all missing.  Thieves!  Starbuck…. Jesse bolted for the barn.
Starbuck couldn’t be stolen, he just couldn’t be!  He had to have wandered away.  She’d be able to tell if he’d been taken, the minute she saw her tack room. The thieves would have taken her saddles too.  She crossed her fingers, trying to think positively as she ran across the driveway.  Her saddles would still be on their perches, and everything would be where it belonged.  The wind blustered against her and fought the barn door, shoving it closed twice.  The third time, Jesse wedged her leg around the door, holding it open while she slipped inside.
From the door, the tack room looked fine, but as she drew close, she could see that the tack room door had been pried off of its hinges and swung from its padlock.  Her horse blankets, sheets and coolers all lay twisted across the floor, brushes and combs strewn on top of them.  Jesse’s nose stung from the biting odor of the overturned bottles of fly spray and medicine.  Dark stains spread across everything.  The old halters hung by their ropes, but the hooks where the new halters and bridles had hung were bare.  Her old jumping saddle still sat primly on its perch, like it always had, but the new Stubben saddle that her grandparents had given her for Christmas had been taken.  Jesse’s stomach churned.
The gravel crunched outside the barn and Jesse whirled to face the door, her heart thudding in her chest.  There had been no vehicles outside.  The thieves had to have left, but who else could it be?  Her dad wouldn’t be there yet!  She backed into Starbuck’s empty stall and the deep nest of wood shavings spilled over into her tennis shoes.  Jesse crouched low and held her breath.
The door squeaked open, then slammed shut.  Shoes scuffed outside the door while the door wrestled open again.  A great gust of wind eddied the shavings in the stall Jesse was hiding in.  She pinched her nose shut to keep from sneezing.  The barn door crashed shut and the only sound was the wind pushing against the barn outside.  Then someone sniffed.  And coughed.  All at once, Lauren’s voice echoed from the wooden walls of the barn. “Jesse?  Where are you?”
Jesse breathed a sigh of relief.  She stood and stepped out of the stall, not bothering to shake her shoes.  “I’m over here.”
Lauren rushed forward, her long blonde curls bobbing behind her and the reins from her bridle in her hand.  “I got here as soon as I could get Legs saddled! Do you know which way he…?”  She stopped when she drew even with the tack room.  Her face turned pale beneath her freckles.  “Whoa!  What happened?”
“Someone broke into our house and my tack room.  I…I think they…took Starbuck, too.”
Lauren’s eyes widened as she stared at Jesse.  “No!  Have you called the police yet?”
Jesse shook her head.  “My phone’s in the house.  I just discovered what happened.  Dad’ll be here in a few minutes.  He doesn’t even know yet.”
Lauren held out her cell phone.  While speaking to the police, Jesse watched her friend tiptoe past the broken door, into the mess. Lauren turned around and around, shaking her head.  Her eyes turned red-rimmed, and she looked ready to cry.  Jessie felt numb inside, just like she had when her mother died two years ago.  It seemed then as if the world had stopped turning.  And now Starbuck….
“Do you think they’re still here?” Lauren whispered when Jesse finished with the police.
“No.  I don’t think so.  I just felt spooky.  That’s why I was hiding when you came.”
“Yeah.”  Jesse crossed her arms in front of her.  Wind gusts boomed against the barn, and she shivered.  Her unease grew.  The thieves had to be gone.  Didn’t they?  She stared into the shadows behind her and up into the darkened loft. Anyone could be hiding there.  “Let’s go outside to wait.  We can check out the pasture.”
Together, they battled the barn door open enough to wedge through.  Heavy gray clouds scudded across the sky, and Lauren’s chestnut mare, Legs, grazed in the yard.  A roll of thunder echoed through the clouds and the horse snorted and lifted her head.  She swiveled her ears in every direction before she put her nose back down to the grass, tearing snatches to chew while she lifted her head and looked around again.
Jesse and Lauren walked over to the pasture gate.  The weight of the open steel gate pushed the tip down into deep water-filled tire tracks.  Jesse hunkered down on the grass beside them and studied their path.   There were two sets of tracks, one on top of the other.  Those hadn’t been there that morning.  The tracks underneath wobbled.
“Looks like someone backed a trailer up to the gate, and then pulled straight out.  Too bad they didn’t get stuck.” Lauren whispered.
Jesse didn’t answer.  She tried to swallow the lump growing in her throat, but it didn’t disappear.  It grew bigger, almost choking her.  They’d taken her Starbuck.  He was her life.  He couldn’t be gone!
The throaty sound of her father’s truck filled the yard as he drove up the driveway.  Jesse, with Lauren, met him halfway between the barn and the gate.  She told him what had happened.  At the end, Lauren added, “We already called the police.”
His jaw muscles clenched and his dark eyes grew darker.  “Girls, I’m going to take a look around.  I’ll start with the barn.”
Jesse nodded.  “I don’t want to go in there again.  I’ll wait here.”
“Me, too!”  Lauren also nodded.
Her father left them for the barn.  Neither Jesse nor Lauren said anything. The thunder rumble had become almost constant now, and had moved straight overhead.  The chill wind paused, as if judging the best time for the storm to hit.  A blaze of lightning shot across the sky with a sharp crack of thunder right behind. Legs jerked her head up and spooked in great strides, her hips low, like a dog.  She stopped her headlong bolt just short of the road.
Lauren turned to Jesse.  “I gotta get her home before she goes home without me.”
“Be careful.”
“I’m really sorry about Starbuck.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”  Lauren hugged Jesse and jogged across the yard toward Legs.
Jesse watched Lauren leave and then faced the barn again.  What was taking her father so long?  She began to walk to the door when he reappeared.  He looked grim and motioned her to wait while he marched off to the house in long tense strides, his head bowed low.  By the time he emerged, shaking his head, a Maine State Police car was pulling into the driveway.
“Thanks for coming, Don,” Jesse’s father said after the officer opened the car door.
Detective Don Lowrey uncurled his legs from under the steering wheel. Then, he stretched one leg out of the car, twisting in his seat to stretch out the other.  He stood and straightened his six and a half feet, grinning.  “I get all cramped up in there.  They just don’t make compacts big enough for people like me.  Sadly, that’s all the department will pay for.”  He reached to shake Jesse’s father’s hand. “Hello Ray.  What happened?”
Jesse’s father told the detective about how Jesse discovered the theft and the tire tracks.  The police officer nodded, glancing around at the barn and the gate. He asked Jesse.  “Did you touch anything?”
Jesse frowned.  “No.  I don’t think so, and I don’t think Lauren did either.”
He nodded and pointed to the heavy sky.  “I think I’ll start with the pasture.” Jesse and her father led the way, and the detective followed with a briefcase.  He squatted beside the tracks.  After several minutes of measuring and drawing in a note pad, he stood and said, “You’re right about those being trailer tracks.  From the depth, I’d say your horse wasn’t the only one in it.  Of course, it’s hard to tell for sure after all the rain we’ve had.”
As if on cue, small raindrops began to spatter against the ground.  They made a hollow metallic ‘pling’ when they hit the gate.  The smell of fresh wet earth and hot pavement filled the air.  The detective sighed and examined the gate, dusting places with powder and covering that with tape.  He pulled the tape off the gate and stuck it on a card.  Jesse leaned in to see.  A perfect fingerprint.  He grinned at her. “Cool, huh?”  After he collected a few more, he asked to see the tack room.
He whistled when he saw the door.  “Quite a job.”  He got out his tape and dusting powder again.  After he finished investigating the tack room, they all went to the house to collect information there.  Jesse stood at the kitchen window while he filled out his reports.  She watched the wall of rain outside and flinched each time the thunder cracked.  It seemed to point out Starbuck’s absence more.  He should be safe and sound in his stall right now, not who knows where, stolen and without her.
Detective Lowrey said, “I’ll need you both to come down to the Caribou station to file your prints with us so we can eliminate them.  Anybody else we need to eliminate should come down too.  Here’s my card.  You can reach me at that number anytime, it’s my pager.”
Jesse reached for the card and asked, “Do you think you’ll find Starbuck?”
He hesitated, and then answered, “I’m not going to lie to you, trying to recover a stolen horse is tough.  We’ll have better luck with the electronics.  A thief can take a horse and stick him in some back yard and we’d never find him.  But, I personally guarantee that we’ll do everything in our power to locate him.  We’ll notify the auction houses and veterinarians nearby, and Border Patrol will keep an eye out, too.  I wish I could give you a better promise.  I’m sorry.”
Jesse’s father nodded and hugged her close to him.  She leaned her head against his chest.  He and the detective spoke a little longer, but she didn’t hear the words.  A heavy weight settled deep in her stomach.  Starbuck was gone!

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