I didn't have no hope of seeing the ghost stallion but I looked anyway. 'Course he wasn't really a ghost. He was flesh and bone, with blood running through him so wild that nobody tried to break him.
Since Ma ran off, Pa doesn't pay much attention to Mary Elizabeth. Maybe it's because she doesn't look anything like Pa, with her long black hair and brown eyes. Or maybe it's because of something that happened a long time ago--before Mary Elizabeth was born. Either way, she plans to run away and be free--just like her ma, and just like the mysterious ghost stallion she watches for every night. But then a stranger comes to town, and Mary Elizabeth finds that nothing is what it seems to be.
This beautifully crafted novel explores a young girl's struggle to find the truth behind her past and the courage to save her crumbling family. In lyrical prose, Laura E. Williams paints an intimate portrait of a daughter desperately trying to find a place for herself in her father's damaged heart.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
|File size:||183 KB|
|Age Range:||9 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Laura E. Williams is the author of Behind the Bedroom Wall, a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book. Ms. Williams lives in Avon, Ohio with her family.
Laura E. Williams is the author of Up a Creek and Behind the Bedroom Wall, which was named a Jane Addams Peace Award Honor Book. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
The Ghost Stallion
By Laura E. Williams
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1999 Laura E. Williams
All rights reserved.
When Sunny died, Pa wrapped one end of a thick, rusty chain around her neck. He hooked the other end up to his tractor and dragged her out of the barn.
Uncle Leroy wanted to skin her. "Make a great seat cover for my truck," he said, shifting his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, real smooth.
My five-year-old sister started bawling. "Can't skin my pony," Nellie cried, her tears making clean streaks down her dusty cheeks. "Gotsta bury her with her skin on."
"She ain't a pony," Uncle Leroy growled. "She's a horse. And she ain't yours, she's your pappy's. And he ain't burying her, he's selling her to the chicken feeders."
Nellie cried harder, and she screamed above the roar of the tractor.
"Hush," I said, patting her yellow hair like Ma used to do. "Hush." I couldn't help wishing I had yellow hair, too. Like Pa and Ma. But my hair is as black as the sludge on the bottom of Trumans' cow pond. Maybe even blacker.
Sometimes I catch Pa staring at it as if he's wondering where it came from. I sure don't look like his side of the family.
"Ain't gonna skin Sunny, is you, Pa?" Nellie cried when Pa turned off the tractor.
He jumped down from the high seat and scooped her up, swinging her in his arms till her tears dried. "Now who been filling your ears about the chicken feeders?" Pa asked. Only he twirled her around when he talked, so I really only heard, "Now ... filling ... about ... chicken ..." But I knew what he said 'cause I'm good at figuring out stuff like that.
Uncle Leroy spit his toothpick into the dirt and ground it like a lit cigarette with the pointy toe of his boot. Slouching as always, he shuffled away, muttering to himself under his breath.
I looked over at Sunny, lying on her side. Flies buzzed around her eyes and mouth. Only now, Sunny was dead and the flies didn't bother her no more.
"Girl, you telling little precious about the chicken feeders?" Pa asked me.
"Nah — was Uncle Leroy." It stung me like a bee how he called me girl and Nellie little precious. Only, she was little and she was precious most of the time. Everyone said so.
Pa glared at me. Looked like he was going to say something more, but Nellie was hugging him around the neck, begging to be carried into the house for some of Auntie's gravy and biscuits. He forgot about me and carried her down the path from the barn, him ducking his head low to hear what she was saying, them laughing and giggling together.
Nellie looks like Ma with her pretty little face and narrow shoulders, but she surely takes after Pa's side of the family when it comes to everything else. They even laugh the same.
Pa carried her up the worn back stairs and through the screen door, which slammed closed behind them. Roses climbed up over the door like a fountain of flowers as they did every summer. Ma had planted them when she first moved here.
The sun was just a wash of orange on the horizon, like one of Ma's watercolor paintings that Pa kept up in the attic. I squatted down next to Sunny and waved my hands to shoo away the flies, but they were thick and stubborn and didn't pay me no mind. I stroked her cheek anyway, like I used to when she nuzzled my hand for an apple. Her neck was all stretched out funny from being hauled from the barn. After supper Pa would finish the job, loading her up onto the truck and driving her over to Mr. Semple's place. Didn't know what Mr. Semple did with dead horses, and I didn't figure on asking, either. Maybe he did sell them to the men who made chicken feed or to the glue factory. But some things, I reckon, are better not to know.
"Bye, Sunny," I whispered. "I loved riding you."
I started riding Sunny about ten years ago, when I was no more than three years old. She was a smallish quarter horse, barely fourteen hands, but she had big intentions. She never ran fast enough to make it to Mr. Semple's racing stable, but she was a good cutting horse in her time, and she bred real fine. Her sons Alonso and Mighty Comfort went on to become champions for Mr. Semple. Sunny didn't have no purses or trophies, but that didn't matter to me. I learned to ride on her. Learned to fall off, too.
I wanted tears to come, to fill my eyes like they did Nellie's all the time. I wanted my tears to fall on Sunny so she'd know how much I loved her, so she'd know how much my heart ached for her being gone. I wanted to cry so bad, I even pinched myself on the arm real hard, but I didn't have no tears in me.
After awhile the smell of Auntie's gravy made my stomach rumble like an old wagon and overpowered my longing to cry. I gave Sunny one last pat on the neck, then headed to the house.
* * *
We lived in a cracked and peeling gray farmhouse. It was a narrow house with skinny windows and a back door that let in only one person at a time. We never used the front door for nothing more than hanging a bridle or a sweater on the tarnished doorknob.
Just before I turned up the path to the house, I looked out over the near fields. They were purple-blue in the late light, and the gentle breeze that always came with night rippled them so they looked like an ocean. Not that I'd ever seen an ocean, but I'd read about them plenty in the books Ma brought with her from the city. She had more books than Miss Whipple at the schoolhouse.
Then, out beyond the ocean of grass, the sagebrush and dead place started and ran right up to the ridge of mountains far off. Ma called it the dead place because sometimes we found dead cattle out there, the hide sucked up against their bones.
I squinted. I didn't have no hope of seeing the ghost stallion, but I looked anyway. Course he wasn't really a ghost — he was flesh and bone, with blood running through him so wild that nobody tried to break him like the other mustangs. I didn't want to tame him, just wanted to see him wild and free in the distance.
I saw nothing, as usual.
With a sigh I turned up the brick walk, the uneven blocks shifting under my feet. Ma had wanted the bricks. She said it was proper. Pa said it was a waste of money, but he'd laid each brick himself. Used to be they were even and smooth, but time had let the weeds grow and the corners crumble. Now Pa didn't even walk on the bricks. He wore a path in the grass right alongside the proper one. In the last nine months since Ma'd been gone, he even talked about digging it up, but he hadn't yet got around to it. I was glad. I liked the walkway. Reminded me of Ma.
I stepped into the house and took off my boots by the door. Pa and Uncle Leroy ate beside the radio in the living room, and Nellie, Auntie, and I sat at the wooden table in the kitchen. Auntie always set the table with silver, mostly gone black with tarnish, and used a real cloth table covering. Sometimes she picked some wildflowers and put them in a jam jar in the center, but she wasn't clever with designing like Ma was. Ma could've taken the ugliest weeds you ever saw and made them into a wreath you'd be proud to wear to church.
"There you are," Auntie said, heaving off the rickety chair and waddling to the stove to fix me a plate. "Wash up," she reminded me before I could sit down.
I scrubbed my hands and face at the kitchen sink. The water was cold, pumped by hand to the large cistern, then gravity-fed into the house.
"Wash up, whether you need it or not," was Auntie's rule. Even Pa and Uncle Leroy had to obey her on that law. That one and the one about closing the outhouse door so's the critters didn't get in and fall down the hole. No one liked the job of digging them out.
I sat down at the table, and Auntie examined my hands. They were clean, like new buds sticking off two brown branches. I washed my hands, but the cleaning stopped at the wrists. Never did nobody no good to have clean arms.
I glanced over at Nellie. She always had clean everything. Even her dusty, tear-streaked cheeks were now shiny and red. And her arms were clean clear up to the short sleeves on her shirt. Someone had brushed her yellow hair, and it looked all silky and fuzzy at the same time. Like an angel. Pa's little precious angel. But I couldn't hate her for that. It wasn't her fault I had black hair.
I dug into my biscuit and gravy. Even though I started last, I knew I'd finish first. Nellie was too slow and careful, cutting and chewing each piece like it was something special. Could take her all night. And Auntie took some time over her three heaping helpings. Pa and Uncle Leroy washed down every bite with a chug of beer as they talked about what needed to be done the next day, so it took them longer, too.
"Slow down," Auntie said. "That's no way for a lady to eat."
Ma used to say that to me all the time, and I tried real hard to please her. I wanted to be a lady, talking proper and smelling like roses.
Now that Ma was gone, Auntie took up her lines: "Slow down. Talk softer. Don't smile with so much teeth showing — you look like a horse." But coming from Auntie, it didn't seem the same. Hard to be polite when the one telling you is a woman three times too big wearing clothes two times too small, who eats with her mouth open on account of she can't breathe so good through her nose. But she does use a napkin real dainty. Ma taught her that.
"Mmph," Auntie said, dropping her fork and grabbing her elbow at the same time. Her face puckered with pain and she shook her head. "Storm coming."
"Is not," Nellie said between tiny bites. "Daddy read in the almanac that there'd only be dry weather for another week at least."
"You believe your almanac," Auntie retorted, returning her attention to her plate but still rubbing her elbow, "and I'll believe my aching bones. They telling me a big storm is on its way. I hurt so bad, I think I'll have to lay abed."
Funny thing about Auntie, she was always wrong. About the weather, anyhow. She couldn't forecast rain or snow or even a sunny day if the sun was shining. But that didn't mean nothing. One time when her bones ached so bad and she had to go to bed, the ghost stallion stole five of Pa's mares. And another time, Pa told us Ma died.CHAPTER 2
After supper Auntie started to scrub the dishes. Uncle Leroy stood by the sink with her, drying the plates and glasses and silver as she handed them over. Every once in a while their arms rubbed together and they seemed to press against each other, like they enjoyed the contact. Sometimes they even sat on the sagging couch next to the radio and held hands. Or if Uncle Leroy was in a fit, Auntie rubbed his back all smooth till the meanness slid out of him. Only she could calm him.
Ma used to rub my back and brush the tangles from my hair. It felt good to be touched. When I saw Auntie and Uncle Leroy touching, it hurt my heart in a way I didn't know how to ease.
I slipped outside so as not to interrupt them. Nellie was bundled in front of the radio, listening to some show with lots of laughter.
Outside, I watched Pa getting ready to haul Sunny away. He stood still for a moment, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. The frayed edges on the cutoff sleeves of his shirt fluttered against his arms, which were wiry strong and brown as dirt from the sun. He kept his boots planted wide and his legs bowed out a little, like mine did. Curse of the saddle, he called it.
He looked down at the dead horse like he was praying or something. Only far as I knew, Pa never said a prayer in his life. Then he snorted and spit at the fence, hitting the crossbars dead center.
I never seen Pa cry, even after what Ma did. Only sometimes his voice gets all thick sounding, like he's choking on a wad of hay, and he snorts and spits a lot. He never snorted for me, though. Not even when I fell off Sunny and broke my arm.
I was just about to go help Pa when Uncle Leroy stepped out of the house. I hung back. Sometimes Pa and I could work with the horses without talking, like we knew what each other was thinking. But when Uncle Leroy was around, static filled the air, and me and Pa just growled at each other.
I turned the other way and went to my evening chores. Had to check the water troughs, and do the haying, and fill the oat bin. I put out milk for the kittens and wrestled with the mutts who hung around the barn. By the time I was done, Sunny was in the truck and Uncle Leroy had driven off. Pa was out in the middle pasture, standing quiet and looking toward the mountains like he did every night. I wondered if he was looking for the ghost stallion, too.
* * *
Crack of gunfire woke me up the next morning. Not often we heard gunfire, 'cept if Pa had to kill a lame horse or if he was hunting an ornery badger. The sound rang against the distant mountains and came back like it didn't want to go away.
From my bed I could see out the window to the stable and the back corrals and the fields beyond. Morning light made everything look gray, and there was Pa, like a misty ghost, shaking his rifle in the air and stomping his feet.
I saw right away that one of the back lodgepole fences had been crushed and the mares, ripe for breeding, had run off.
"The ghost stallion," I whispered, wishing I had seen him.
I jammed myself into my jeans and boots, pulled on a T-shirt and a thick flannel shirt. It was an old one of Pa's but since I'm so tall and have shoulders broad enough for a boy, the shirt fit me. I charged out of the house, reaching Pa with barely a breath left.
"It was him, wasn't it, Pa?"
"I'm going to kill that devil horse."
"No, Pa. Some people trying to protect the wild horses. They won't like it if you kill one." I didn't need to tell him I was one of those people. He knew. Besides, I didn't hold no influence over him.
"Those do-gooders going to give me back my mares and foals I lost? Only way I'll git 'em back is if I take care of this myself." He started to stomp toward the house.
I grabbed the sleeve of his worn work shirt. "You're not really going to kill him, are you, Pa?"
He shook my hand free. "Why shouldn't I? It ain't right that he steals from me and I can't do nothing about it, is it? What am I supposed to do?" He might have said something more, but a truck drove down the drive toward us.
I recognized the truck. Easy to do since we didn't have many neighbors. It was a brand-new Ford. Red with shiny wheels. Only Mr. Semple could afford a truck like that.
The truck slammed to a stop, and Mr. Semple jumped out of the cab. His thin face was pulled tight over his skull like them cattle out in the dead place. We called him Bones behind his back.
"Goddamned devil horse," he cursed, taking off his hat and flapping it against his skinny leg. "Goddamned ghost stallion. I'm going to kill that son of a —" Then he saw me and stopped. His lips moved for a bit, with nothing coming out. "That danged horse took six of my very best mares. Six!"
Pa nodded vigorously. "Took four here. Out on the north field."
"Any of them mine?" Semple asked sharply.
Pa shook his head, his shoulders sagging. Mostly he bred and trained for Mr. Semple, but he had some of his own horses he was trying to train so eventually he wouldn't have to work for someone else. But if the ghost stallion kept stealing his stock that was never gonna happen.
"I just got back the other mares he took last winter," Mr. Semple said, interrupting my thoughts. "Couldn't git him, though. That stallion's just laughing at us."
Pa sighed. "He beat down the fence and wire like it was nothing."
I winced. The wire was electrified. Even though it was smooth as fishing line and not barbed like the drift fencing the cattle ranchers used, it could cut like a knife.
I remembered the last time the ghost stallion had come for a visit. One of Mr. Semple's mares that Pa was training got tangled in the wire. Cut right through the pastern joint, just above the heel of the hoof. Horse bled to death before we could save her. Pa and Mr. Semple blamed the ghost stallion for that, but I didn't.
"I'm offering a reward," Mr. Semple said to Pa. "One hundred dollars to kill him."
"You can't kill him," I blurted out.
"He's a thief," Mr. Semple bit back before Pa could tell me to shut up. "Thieving's against the law, right? And criminals go to jail, right?"
I nodded, knowing he was trying to trick me.
"Ain't no horse jail, so we have to kill him." He said it like there was no more to say about it.
"But it ain't right to kill horses, even if they are wild," I argued. I didn't see Pa's hand till it smacked against my shoulder.
"Git to the house," he growled.
Arguing with Pa when it was just Pa was bad enough, but it wouldn't do me no better if I opened my mouth against him in front of a man like Mr. Semple. Still, I couldn't help saying under my breath, "What's wrong with wanting to be free?" as I walked away, slow as I could.
Excerpted from The Ghost Stallion by Laura E. Williams. Copyright © 1999 Laura E. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love this book.It can be sad at times but its an amazing story about how a girl works to save a wild stallion from her dad and a stranger.