Broken Wings and Hoofbeats

Maybe, because it’s Derby week, but I’ve found I’ve been thinking about horses a lot these past few days.  I find myself standing in my living room, staring up at framed, limited edition of perhaps one of the greatest race horses of all time, and no, I’m not talking about Secretariat.  Make no mistake, “Big Red” was impressive and gorgeous and put together in a manner that most of us will never live to see again, but if you’re old enough to remember that huge red colt thundering down the homestretch to a 31 length romp (for perspective, that’s over a quarter of a mile) in the Belmont Stakes in 1973, you’re old enough to remember a black, winged Pegasus who so briefly blazed across the skies of the Thoroughbred world two years later.

I love to watch Thoroughbred racing.  I have for as long as I can remember.  The strength and agility and beauty of the horse are what drew me in, as these things do to most little girls who become “horse-crazy.”  The fragility of such a beautiful animal that we ask to run all out for a mile or more makes me feel guilty, because somehow I feel I’m contributing to a sport that seems to condone broken legs, green curtains drawn around the fallen in the dust of the track, and huge syringes of pink euthanasia solution.
It was my granddad’s fault I fell so deeply in love with Thoroughbred racing.  He took me to the track on weekends, only we didn’t go into the stands.  He had friends who could get us into the stable areas.  It was there I learned to love the smells of a horse barn: the tannic bite of fresh sawdust, the richness of leather polish, the sweet scent of newly harvested hay, and the earthy aroma of warm horses.  In the barns, I discovered a horse’s breath smells sweet, like freshly cut grass on a hot summer morning, that a horse’s nose is the softest velvet imaginable, and within the depths of their dark eyes are secrets horses willingly share with quiet, awkward, and shy thirteen year-old girls.  Standing on the rail in the back stretch in the very early morning hours of any given Saturday, I learned to listen to the sound of hoof beats in the predawn gloom, the “chuffing” of the horse’s breath, the rhythmic scrubbing of leather reins against a sweaty neck, those sounds mingling into a well-orchestrated symphony that rose in volume and then faded.  I didn’t mind the cold mornings, shivering on the rail, so long as I could watch those perfectly crafted animals.
One of my favorite memories of those early mornings at the track was that symphony conducted by two exercise boys in late fall, the music muted more than usual by a thick, heavy fog.  Several seconds after I first heard the dueling hoof beats, I saw the two horses roiling out of the gloom, like the ghosts of the chargers of knights of old, snorting steam with each breath.  The fog coiled around both animals, wrapping with sinuous eroticism around legs and necks, caressing bunching and uncoiling muscles, dancing across broad backs.  And, then they were gone into the fog, only the pounding of their hooves remaining, haunting, ethereal. 
I’ve always been a sucker for the fillies, maybe because just like in the sport and art of breeding show dogs, one dam can only contribute so much to a gene pool, whereas the “stud de jour” can wreak havoc that takes generations to repair.  So when a friend asked if I was taking Eight Belles for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, I hesitated for a moment.  “I just hope she can come off the track sound,” I remember saying, because she reminded me of another black filly, a heartbreaker from my childhood.
Eight Belles
Eight Belles was a huge grey filly—so dark she was nearly black, with a white star on her forehead.  Belle had the genes to run because both sides of her pedigree incorporated Mr. Prospector, one of the top producing stallions of all time, and Mr. Prospector was the grandson of “The Grey Ghost,” Native Dancer.   I knew what lurked in Belle’s family tree because I memorize pedigrees.  I have memorized family lines ever since I was thirteen.  Even though Belle’s breeding screamed she came from a line of animals known to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, she had heart.  I’d watched her run several races, and the filly was incredible.
For most of the 2008 Derby, Belle stalked the pack of nineteen other horses, staying comfortably in the back, running in fifth place.  At a mile and a furlong, Belle made her move, slipping through traffic, gliding into third, slightly off the rail. As expected, though, Big Brown exploded at the mile pole, coming along the outside from the far back, and soon overtook Belle.  Belle changed leads, bobbing slightly to come further off the rail, and made a valiant effort to overtake Brownie when he blew by her.  Denis of Cork made a late move, but couldn’t take either Eight Belles or Big Brown.  Brownie coasted across the finish first, Eight Belles in second, and Denis of Cork a distant third. 
Within a few seconds, the jubilation of seeing all twenty horses come across the wire apparently healthy and sound ended for some. Television coverage was taken from Brownie’s team celebrating to Eight Belles, struggling to stand in the backstretch.  An outrider kept Belle’s head pulled toward her shoulder to keep her prone on the track, and two track employees were assisting in keeping her calm.  Her jockey’s body language said it all.  He’d already pulled the postage stamp saddle from her back, and stood, shoulders slumped.
My stomach fell.  I can’t say that memories of Barbaro’s breakdown two years before in the Preakness flashed across my mind, even though at that time, I was devastated.  Barbaro though had a chance of surviving, because it was a rear leg he injured, he never broke the skin, allowing infection in, and his connections not only had the money but the willingness to do whatever they could to save his life.  However, memories of that other filly, that black heartbreaker of my childhood, did sear my soul with Eight Belle’s breakdown.  I barely registered my friend’s tears, or Dr. Larry Bramlage telling the television viewing audience that Eight Belle’s injuries were catastrophic—I still cringe with the polite, euphemistic manner to state Belle had shattered both front ankles and couldn’t even stand—and she was humanely euthanized on the track.  Instead, I heard CBS sports’ commentator Chick Anderson’s voice echoing in my head.  “. . .like watching a masterpiece being destroyed.”
And, suddenly, I was thirteen again.  Granddad first pointed me in Ruffian’s direction, after she had been named champion two-year old filly.  I fell in love as only a thirteen year old girl can when I watched Ruffian run, even if I could only watch her on closed circuit television.  She ran so fast, so effortlessly, that distance and time were redefined.  She was speed on speed.  Unearthly speed.
My favorite picture of Ruffian, airborne, as Pegasus should always be.
She was foaled April 17th, 1972 at Clairborne Farms, Kentucky.  Ruffian’s pedigree was a recipe for stellar achievement.  Her dam was Shenanigans, a daughter of Native Dancer.  Mr. Prospector, Eight Belles’s sire, came down from the Native Dancer line.  Ruffian’s sire was Reviewer, a son of Bold Ruler.  Reviewer retired to stud after only thirteen starts, his racing career cut short by two separate leg injuries, one of which was a hairline crack in a rear leg.  Unfortunately, combining Reviewer with Native Dancer was also a formula for racing disaster, as Reviewer consistently produced Thoroughbreds who broke down before they were three as often as he produced champions, and the Native Dancer line is just plain brittle.  Breeding Shenanigans to Reviewer was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.    
Ruffian was huge for a filly, looking more like a colt, so she was registered with a masculine name, hoping she would run like the boys.  She was taller and longer than the outsized Secretariat.  Born to run and built for speed, Ruffian was the result of generations of selective breeding. Her conformation was textbook perfect, the proportions so correct she was as flawless as any living creature can be.   She was black, black as a nightmare—which she was to her “utterly dominated opposition”——black as the crack of doom.  She had to be black because there are many who believe that black excludes all other colors, and perfection itself is exclusive.  Walter Farley, author of the beloved Black Stallion series of young adult books, said if there was any horse that would have been the model for his fictional black Arabian stallion, it would be her.  She had a massive, deep chest—horsemen say to hold a champion’s heart.  She had long, delicate legs, with tiny, teacup hooves. A white star centered Ruffian’s wide forehead, a reminder that she was, would be, and always will be a star.
She was born three days late, the only time in her life she didn’t lead, the only time in her life she wasn’t out in front, challenging all those behind her to catch her.  As if they could.  She seemed to run as if she was trying to make up the seventy-two hours she had fallen behind.  Her average margin of victory was eight and a half lengths.  In the barn, she was an absolute angel, tractable, sweet, highly intelligent, and self-assured.  On the track, she was savage in her need to run, a demon who knew only one speed—faster.  She had a stride that was unbelievable in its length.  Ruffian so dominated the sport that she was called a “freak.”
The legs of any horse are a wonder of creation—or evolution, whichever flavor you chose to believe.  A horse’s lower leg is merely an elongated finger bone.  Try running a mile as fast as possible on the middle digits of your hands and feet.  From their knees down, there is no muscling on a horse’s leg.  It’s just bone, long tendons, and skin.  In a full-out gallop, on each stride, every ounce of a horse’s weight is balanced on one leg, that limb pounding into the ground with more than twelve thousand pounds of force.  However, when Ruffian ran, she didn’t pound.  She appeared to hang suspended in mid-air and the ground zipped along under her.  She literally floated in a gallop and the smooth motion was deceptive, for hidden within that easy stride was pure black wildfire, black lightning screaming across the skies.  She made many of us believe she truly could fly.  Frank Whiteley, her trainer, said Ruffian was unlike any other horse, before or after, like “nothing you ever seen” and “faster than any horse alive.” 
She didn’t run like the boys.  She ran better than the boys.  Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, said holding her back in exercise gallops left his arms numb: “No arms, no muscles.  What power she has.”  After one exercise session, Whiteley approached Vasquez and casually asked him how fast he thought the filly worked.  Vasquez said he thought she did the half mile in about fifty seconds and some change.  Whiteley handed him the stop watch.  Ruffian had run a half mile in 45 seconds flat.  Vasquez said it was impossible, she hadn’t acted as if she was exerting herself.
Ruffian destroying her competition. 
Vasquez never tried to hold her back in a race because that would have been an exercise in futility.  Even though Whiteley routinely ordered him to keep her “under wraps,” Ruffian had other ideas on how to run her races.  She broke from the gate as if the devil himself goaded her and she set records every time she put a delicate hoof onto the groomed surface of a race track—records not only in the matter of time but in the distance between herself and her nearest competitor. She set records that still stand to this day, more than three decades later.  When Secretariat burned the first quarter mile in the 1973 Belmont Stakes in his quest for the Triple Crown in 24 seconds and change, he was hailed as the second coming of Man O’War.  Ruffian routinely ran the first quarter of a mile in 23 seconds and fractions, including on her home track at Belmont Park.   A review of her racing record glitters with the number “1” for every furlong of every race Ruffian ever ran.  She became known as a “heartbreaker.”
She won the Filly Triple Crown, and with every race Ruffian ran, she just got faster and faster, shaving half seconds and then full seconds off her previous times.  She was termed “invincible.”  Secretariat was never given that label.  Neither was Man O’War.  They both tasted defeat.  She never did. 
Those horses who challenged her were never the same after they raced against her.   The list is long and impressive, a who’s who of the elite world of Thoroughbred Grade I stakes contenders in the mid 1970s: Cornucopia, Hot N Nasty, Laughing Bridge, Sir Ivor’s Sorrow, Aunt Jin. . . Foolish Pleasure.  After she destroyed Laughing Bridge in the Spinaway, Laughing Bridge’s trainer, Al Scotti, was heard to say, “No more.  No more.”  Lucien Laurin, trainer of the super-horse Secretariat was quoted as saying he was thankful “Big Red” wouldn’t ever have to face Ruffian.  Laurin stated, “As God is my witness, I think she’s better than him.”
Eventually, there were no more fillies to challenge her and there came talk of a Match Race between this black Pegasus and the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure. 
The day of the Match Race between the two great horses, July 6th, began hot, humid, and cloudless, even though thunder-storms were forecast.  By post time, black clouds darkened the sky, lightning danced across the heavens, and the thunder was a grumbling voice of discontent, but the rain held off.  The racing board deemed the track at post time to be fast and hard.  Forged hard like an anvil.
Foolish Pleasure had been schooled on breaking solidly and fast from the gate, thinking if he could get the jump on the filly, it would break her, as she’d never been behind any other horse.  The colt’s trainer was not about to let her take the lead and therefore set the pace.  Too well, LeRoy Jolley knew Ruffian’s brutal, destructive speed and what it did to the horses trailing her.  Foolish Pleasure’s fast start from the gate didn’t break Ruffian, even though he was half a head out of the gate before she was.  Instead, her ears laced back and she fought her jockey to take the bit into her teeth. 
No horse was going to head her. 
No horse ever had. 
No horse ever would. 
And then, at the three/eighths mile post, thirty-five short seconds into the race, Ruffian stumbled and quickly righted herself.  In that strange silence both jockeys said they heard something.  Braulio Beaza said it sounded like a board cracking.  Vasquez said it was like a gun shot.  Another bobble from Ruffian, and this time Vasquez knew there was something terribly wrong.  He began sawing the bit in Ruffian’s mouth, trying to stop her, pulling her to the vine-shrouded far rail.  She kept running, in a bobbing, lurching manner, running on exposed bone, driving sand and dirt into her leg. Incredibly and horrifically, for two strides, she kept ahead of the bay colt. 
Dave Johnson, the track announcer shouted, disbelief in his voice, “Ruffian has broken down.”  And, then, he repeated, this time his voice breaking in horror, “Ruffian has broken down.”
For another fifty yards she fought the bit, fought to keep running, her fighting worse when Foolish Pleasure surged past her.  Finally, Jacinto Vasquez had her stopped. 
The silence from the crowd was so great the thudding of Foolish Pleasure’s hooves into the anvil-hard track was the heart-beat of that collective body. Vasquez lifted her right foreleg, hoped to minimize the damage to what was a grotesquely mangled limb, bracing himself to hold her upright.  The delicate leg was obviously broken, the hoof hanging on by little more than a tendon and a strip of black hide.  Her blood poured onto the track, covered Vasquez’s silks, adding another shade of red to the white and red of the colors of Clairborne Farms. 
Ruffian was fitted on the track with a pneumatic cast, treated for shock and pain and hemorrhage and was taken away in a state-of-the-art horse ambulance to the veterinary hospital across the street from Belmont Park.  Surgery was performed on her leg, eight hours of intricate, hellishly complicated reconstructive surgery to repair torn tendons, seal pumping arteries and veins, screw bone shattered like glass back together.  Four veterinarians and a human orthopedic surgeon attempted the impossible.  Were Ruffian any other horse, the racing board at Belmont and the track veterinarian would have drawn a green sheet around her and she would have been euthanized on the track. 
Ruffian was not any other horse. 
It was nearly two a.m. when Ruffian came up from the anesthesia.  Her forelegs began to paddle, slowly at first, then faster and faster, and as always, leading with her right foreleg.  Horses have only two instinctive responses to pain, fight or flight.  She knew only one response: run.  Run as fast as nature and genetics allow her to run.  She was running away, even though she was prone on her side.  Despite the efforts of the four veterinarians of the surgical team, five attendants, and her trainer, the very instinct which made her run so fast made her fight to get to her feet.  She shattered the cast on her right foreleg and broke her left foreleg in her thrashing to regain an upright position.  She was quickly resedated, just enough to throw her back into a twilight state of anesthesia to give the veterinarians time to confer with Whiteley and then with Staurt Janney, Ruffian’s owner.  Whiteley told Janney, “It’s bad, sir, really bad.”  Janney was reported to have told Whiteley, “I don’t want her to suffer any more, Frank.”  Whiteley understood.  There was nothing else to do for Ruffian, now, except to humanely finish the destruction she started nine hours earlier.  Frank Whiteley asked Ruffian’s groom to bring her halter, and Whiteley stayed with Ruffian while she was injected with the overdose of phenobarbital.  It was 2:20 in the morning.
The rain, which had been threatening since post time, finally began to fall. 
At sunset on July 7th,  with the track closed to racing and the public, with the flag flying at half-staff, with jockeys, grooms, and trainers in attendance, and with all the dignity befitting a fallen champion, Ruffian was laid to rest in the infield at Belmont Park.  Frank Whiteley’s wife lowered a single, red rose into the open grave with her.  In the silence which was Ruffian’s elegy, a mourning dove burst from the nearby bushes, flying into the purpled twilight sky. 
For all eternity, this filly will forever be ahead of the horses crossing the finish line at Belmont, where she always was.  In the lead.
And, why this tribute to a long dead filly?  I don’t know.  Maybe, because it is Derby week.  Maybe because there was just something so ethereal and other-worldly about the perfection she embodied.  Or maybe, because as a horse lover, I have to keep hoping that Ruffian, and IndyAnne, and Eight Belles, and thousands of nameless horses on race tracks large and small, have not died in vain and that the Thoroughbred industry will finally wake up and realize there isn’t going to be another Triple Crown winner until the breed itself cleans house, removes the brittleness and fragility from the bloodlines, returns to breeding animals that could run like Secretariat and Ruffian and Seattle Slew without the use of drugs to prevent lung hemorrhaging, and understands that the general public is not going to continue to tolerate that polite euphemism of “catastrophically broke down” coupled with green curtains and massive syringes filled with bright pink solution. 
We owe it to Ruffian, to IndyAnne, to Eight Belles, and all the others that their deaths were not in vain.
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State Secrets?

I was involved in an interesting conversation the other day on Facebook about shampoos and grooming tips for collies.  (For those of you who don’t know, my alter ego is a professional dog handler—mainly collies, but I’ve shown many breeds over the years.)  The gist of that conversation was most people don’t like to share what’s hidden in their tack boxes or what goodies might be lurking in the totes full of spray bottles.  Seriously?  When did grooming a dog at the show—or at home, for that matter—become a state secret?   
That failure to share knowledge made me think of a handler several years ago who had cans of shaving cream in their totes, covered with plain paper or a lot of duct tape, and each can was labeled “secret mousse.”  Like it wasn’t incredibly obvious those cans were simply shaving cream?  And, when asked what that shaving cream was used for, the majority of people were told it wasn’t shaving cream and the question was put aside.  Honestly???? 
I stated, for the record, that my tack box and the tote of bottles is an open book.  I am more than willing to share the knowledge I’ve garnered over the decades (OMG—it has been over three decades of dog showing!) on how to groom a dog to accentuate virtues and downplay faults.  If we don’t share our knowledge with those just starting out in this crazy hobby of showing dogs, where will the next generation of fanciers come from?  I had several mentors, some of whom were/are giants in the breed.
From my mentors I learned the things I needed to start “playing dog show.” I learned the bloodlines I was working with, what puppies did at certain ages in their development, how to groom to make that dog look his/her best, and how to present that dog.  I will also be the very first to admit I am still learning, and I pray that the day I stop learning is the day that I am placed in the ground.  I also learned that paying it forward reaps its own rewards.  I have promised myself that I will be a mentor to those who ask me for help, and I will NOT take the role of dictator and assume that if the dog doesn’t come from the lines I have incorporated into my breeding program that dog is automatically a “pet.”  I will also admit, it’s taken me a while to reach that point in my life, but every dog has redeeming qualities—it’s up to all of us to find, recognize, and appreciate those qualities.
And that started me thinking about the writing life and the mentors I’ve had in this incredible journey.  This is my chance now to name just a few of these people.  First of all, there was Barb Wright.  She and I met a long time ago at a creative writing workshop offered by the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, when I lived in Wisconsin when my kids were little.  I’ve lost track of Barb, but she was also a writer.  She wrote fantasy and she was one of the first to read my pitiful attempts at novel writing.  She had such wonderful insights and suggestions and she steadied those first, toddling steps to completing a manuscript. 
And, then there are my old AOL writing buddies: Cyndia Depre, Ellen Recknor, and Rebecca Green.  Cyn  is an incredibly talented mystery writer.  I can’t really call what she writes as “cozies” because her novels are a bit too edgy for a cozy.  Cyn could spot a plot hole a mile off, and then start throwing suggestions out to fill in that hole faster than a puppy can destroy a new pair of leather shoes.  (I’ve had experience with puppies and new leather shoes, by the way.)  Ellen Recknor, who I bow down to.  Published under several pen names, winner of the Spur Award, nominated for a Pulitzer and author of such great reads as Prophet Annie, Leaving Missouri, and Me and the Boys, and just a great friend.  I think I was one of the first people she talked to when she started writing The Legendary Kid Donovan.  Imagine this premise: A sixteen year old boy goes west to meet his uncle, his only surviving family, only to learn his uncle has been murdered for a share of a failing mine, and the kid has inherited his uncle’s only other possession: a brothel.  I know I laughed out loud when Ellen told me the premise of that novel.  Ellen has taught me the value of perseverance and determination.  She kept prodding me to keep sending my manuscripts out.  And, Rebecca Green…one of those people who is among the best at brainstorming.  I still have pages and pages of conversations saved from the AOL IM brainstorming sessions we would have until all hours of the morning.  One of these days, those sessions will turn into my next manuscript.
Lastly, but certainly not the only person who has guided me along this path is a member of my master’s committee: Mr. Aaron Michael Morales.  Aaron is one of the edgiest, brightest, sharpest up and coming Latino writers in this universe.  (For an incredible read, find Drowning Tuscon and make sure that you’ve got time to read this, because not only is it written with such an edge the words cut, it is breath-taking in its characterization and insight into the human psyche.) Aaron pushed me to go in directions I never would have thought to go with my writing, was incredibly hard on me (but, as he said, he knew after the first class I had with him that I could take the heat and I would also craft a better story with that kind of intense pressure), and made me a better writer for all of it. 
And, I know I haven’t mentioned everyone who I consider a mentor.  But, if these people had not been willing to share knowledge, had not been willing to offer constructive criticism (unlike one person in the old AOL chat circles who offered to be a critique partner and so literally tore my MS to shreds that I stopped writing ANYTHING and EVERYTHING for two years), and had not been supportive over the years, I would not be the writer I am today. 
I’ll admit I’m not a great writer.  I’ll argue I’m a good writer and with everything I write, I become a better writer.  I have to admit also, that even though I’ve long since forgotten the name of that person on AOL who shredded my MS, I have never forgotten the pain or the sheer, breath-taking brutality of that attack.  Every workshop I enrolled in while working on my master’s degree, and every critique I have ever been asked to do for anyone has been influenced by that cruelty.  I know how deeply wounding a non-constructive critique can be, no matter how tough the writer claims his/her hide may be.  I promised myself, when I finally forced myself to write again, that I WILL NEVER offer an unconstructive criticism of any one’s writing, and no matter how bad the writing may be, there are still gems to be gleamed within that work.  It is my job, as a critique partner, as a member of a workshop, as a fellow writer, to find those gems, bring them to light, and gently push/prod/guide that writer to also see those gems. 
So, I have to ask.  Is being a mentor, sharing knowledge, really a state secret?  If we don’t mentor one another, guide one another, offer insights into this writing life, where will the next generation of writers come from?

Just teasing

I’ve noticed that a lot of my fellow signed authors at The Wild Rose Press use their blog to post excerpts from their upcoming novels.  That got me to thinking…if I would post an excerpt from The Devil’s Own Desperado, what would it be?  Would I post the first meeting between Colt and Amelia?  Or one of those scenes where the sexual tension is starting to really pull on the two characters?  Or, would I post the blackest hour, the moment when it seems that all is lost and Colt and Amelia just aren’t going to be able to make it work?

So, I decided to post a little bit from one of those sexual tension scenes.

Colt walked to her and caught hold of her shoulder. He gently turned her and pulled her away from the window. “Or bring them back to you, Amelia? How did they die?”
Damn it, he shouldn’t care. It didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was getting his gun back and leaving here…leaving her. He couldn’t afford to care about anyone other than himself and yet, he cared how her parents had died. He cared that she was raising her brother and sister by herself, that her slender shoulders were carrying that weight alone. He cared that the longer he was with her, the greater the odds became that the Matthews brothers would find him here and that she or those kids could be hurt.
She shook her head, the loose tendrils of her hair brushing her face. “It doesn’t matter how, it just matters they are dead, and I have to raise Saul and Jenny.”
“Did a gunman kill them? Is that why you’re so opposed to a gun in your house?”
Amelia didn’t answer. Colt brushed several long, wispy tendrils of strawberry blond from her slender cheeks. “It’s not an easy job you have. Raising kids, especially a boy, can’t be easy.”
She stilled under his light touch, and her eyes widened. Colt trailed his fingertips down the length of her neck, resting them for a moment in the hollow of her throat. Her pulse leaped under his fingers. She scarcely took a breath.
Dear God, she was innocent as a newborn. Colt’s chest tightened and a heavy weight settled in his groin. He caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger and tilted her face up to him. He bent his head to her. He doubted it would have been possible, but she stilled even more.
Colt hesitated. “You’ve never been kissed, have you?”
Her tongue darted out, skimming along her lips. Colt ground his teeth with the effort to keep from claiming her mouth at that instant.
“Yes, I have.” Bright color splashed on her cheeks, matching the defensive tone of her voice.
“Really kissed, or just a peck on the cheek by some sweaty-palmed boy behind the church?” He bent closer to her, his mouth nearly on hers. “Did some boy press his lips to yours for a second and tell you that you’d been kissed?”
The bedroom door flew open and Saul raced in. “Amy, the cows got out again.”
Amelia leaped back as if scalded. Colt smothered a groan when Amelia slipped from his fingers and brushed past him. “I’ll help you catch them,” she said to Saul.
Colt dropped his head to his chest, ruthlessly quelling the desire firing through him. The tormenting, faint scent of vanilla lingered in her wake.
Don’t have a release date yet, as Susan (my editor) and I are still working on edits, but as soon as I have one, I’ll let everyone know.  



Wronged Women

While taking a break from working on the new story that the plot bunny brought the other night, I just started looking at a few of my favorite Internet pages for mythology—places like http://www.greekmythology.com/, http://www.pantheon.org/areas/mythology/, and http://www.maicar.com/GML/index.html.  And, inevitably, I started reading about Medea and Medusa—probably two of the most wronged women in the whole of the Greek pantheon.  I’ve always been drawn to both Medea and Medusa. 
Medea, according to the play by Euripides, killed her two sons to exact revenge on Jason (yes, thatJason—of the Argonauts fame) when Jason spurned her to marry a princess, because he thought it would look better for him to be married to a Greek princess, not a barbarian princess.  And, Jason tells Medea all of this AFTER Medea helps him complete all the tasks necessary to win the Golden Fleece and he then takes Medea from her homeland to a place where she is a stranger in a strange land.

Jason: O children, what a wicked mother Fate gave you.
Medea: O sons, your father’s treachery cost you your lives.
Jason: It was not my hand that killed my sons.
Medea: No, not your hand; but your insult to me, and your new-wedded wife.
Jason: You thought that reason enough to murder them, that I no longer slept with you?
Medea: And is that injury a slight one, do you imagine, to a woman?
(Euripides)

Ummmm, Jason…you’re an idiot. 
Older myths have the people of Corinth killing Medea’s children and blaming her.  Euripides, of course, has Medea killing her own two children. 
Medusa was a priestess of Athena and almost as beautiful as the goddess she served.  Unfortunately for Medusa, Athena was “one of the guys.”   Remember, Athena sprang from Zeus’s head, fully formed, without a mother.  She was girl in form only.  When Poseidon saw Medusa and wanted her, Medusa said “No” because she was bound to remain virgin if she was in Athena’s service.  Poseidon wasn’t about to take “no” for an answer and he raped Medusa in Athena’s temple.  Now, did Athena get angry at her uncle and demand Poseidon’s proverbial head on a platter for debasing one of her priestesses, in her own temple?  Hell, no!  Athena was furious with Medusa.  Athena is the one who turned the beautiful Medusa into a Gorgon, complete with hissing hairdo and the original “looks that kill.” 
Western myth is full of wronged women, unjustly condemned just because they were beautiful, smart…and all the gods forbid…WOMEN!  But, it’s the myths of Medea and Medusa that I relate to the most.  I’ve never quite understood why, but those tales resonate deep within me.  Maybe it’s because I try to put myself into the mindset of each of the characters that I write that I can empathize with Medea and Medusa. 
Imagine that you’ve met the love of your life.  He’s smart (as guys go), the gods know he’s got brawn and bravado (he better, or he isn’t going to last five seconds in this crazy, bloody world of the Greek gods and demi-gods), and he’s drop dead gorgeous.  Now, you’ve got the goods he needs to be able to defeat a fire-breathing bull, a field full of soldiers who pop up out of the ground, and a dragon who never, ever sleeps.  You promise to help him on one condition: he take you far, far away from this little backwater place and marry you.  Even though your daddy is the king here, and that makes you a princess—this isn’t the happening place.  So, this guy agrees to your terms, and you proceed to defy and betray king and kingdom to follow your heart.  And, once he’s got what he wants—the Golden Fleece and you’re now in a strange land, hated by everyone around you—this guy tells you, “Gee, honey, it’s been great.  Thanks for giving me two kids, but I’m a Greek hero.  I need to be married to a Greek princess, not a barbarian princess.”  (To the Greeks, anyone who wasn’t a Greek was a barbarian.) 
HELLO???????  Frankly, Jason should be really, really thankful all Medea did was poison his new wife and father-in-law.  Myself, I would have castrated the philandering jackass and then killed him.
And, then there is Medusa…my heart aches for Medusa.  Sworn priestess to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and by all accounts of the myth, Medusa was devoted to her goddess.  Medusa was a stunning beauty, but she took her responsibilities—including remaining virgin—seriously.  Enter the God of the Sea, Poseidon, Athena’s uncle.  He sees Medusa and tries to seduce her.  Medusa tells him to go soak his head.  This doesn’t play with a god who fooled around almost as much as his brother, Zeus.  Like Zeus, he doesn’t take “no” for an answer.  Apparently to these guys, “no” didn’t mean “no.”  So he chases Medusa into Athena’s temple, corners her, and rapes her.
Athena comes totally unhinged.  Instead of comforting her priestess, instead of smacking the crap out of her uncle, instead of demanding Poseidon make retribution to this poor woman, Athena blames Medusa for being raped.  Remember when I said Athena was “one of the guys”?  Trust me on this.  This was a goddess in name only.  She wasn’t a female in her thought patterns, actions, or emotions.  Perhaps, because Athena didn’t have a mother…but whatever the reason, Athena thought and acted like one of the guys.  Can’t you just see her sitting down to the Saturday night poker game with these boys on Mount Olympus? 
Athena is so furious with Medusa for allowing herself to be raped, she curses this beautiful woman to a fate worse than death.  She changes her into a Gorgon—Medusa’s hair becomes a writhing mass of serpents and her very gaze turns all she looks on into stone.  And, then, Athena banishes Medusa to solitary confinement (as if her new state of being wasn’t solitary enough) on a deserted island.  Can you imagine what that must have been like—as everything you look at turns to stone and the island becomes quieter and quieter as every living thing turns to stone when you look at it?  And, the rock garden continues to grow with every want to be hero arriving, trying to kill you?  I’d imagine that death, when it finally came in the form of Perseus, was welcomed and a blessing.

And, I’m thinking, somewhere in these myths, is the kernel of another romance.  Dangit, dear Muse, can we work on one thing at a time?

Hmmmmmmm…

The Voices Won’t Shut Up!

In between doing laundry (it’s amazing how many dog blankets I have to wash after a Nationals), answering the telephone, playing ponies with Jadelynn (there was no school today for Good Friday), and working on the edits for The Devil’s Own Desperado, I became very aware of a plot bunny hopping around inside of my head.
Now, I was very happy to see this little plot bunny, because it means my Muse has decided to make an entrance.  She has been on sabbatical for almost two years now.  She’s sent a baby sister for some of the creative work in the form of short stories, working the show leads (which actually is an incredible creative outlet), and other smaller creative projects, but SHE has not been around.  I recognized this plot bunny, fuzzy ears and all, as a full grown plot bunny. 
This little bunny hopped around inside of my head while I was sorting dog blankets, whispering names and scenes to me.  While I was playing ponies, more scenes began filling in the landscape.  With every twitch of its nose, every flick of its tail, every jerk of its long ears, more and more began to fill in.  I’ve got a hero—complete with full name: Leigh Caden Rockland.  The ever generous Muse even let me see him, to get a good look at him.  He’s tall, a long drink of water.  Think John Wayne, about age 30.  (Frankly, in my humble opinion, they don’t make ‘em like the Duke anymore.)  Sandy blonde hair, cobalt blue eyes, light on his feet, a man of few words…maybe my Muse likes John Wayne as much as I do.  There’s two shes in this one: the girl he left five years before and the girl he grows to love now.  The girl he left before is a blonde-haired, dark-eyed haunting beauty who hates Leigh so much she’ll do anything to ruin him…and I think, unfortunately for him, I do mean anything.  She’s Katherine Hathaway.  She’s pure poison, sugar-coated to be sure, but poison, none the less.  The girl he grows to love now is Delia McCord: dark-headed, blue-eyed and the opposite of Katherine.  Delia is the grand-neice—by marriage—of Ethan McCord and she is Ethan’s only known living relative.  She’s come to Federal to inherit her uncle’s ranch, the Diamond Bar M.  Ethan, however, was not a very good man while he was alive, and he’s got a few kids wandering the scenery, kids who know they’re Ethan’s and who want a piece of the Diamond Bar M.
And, now, the voices won’t shut up.  Those scenes are being populated with dialogue, action, emotions.  There’s a land speculator in here, somewhere.  The Muse hasn’t told me yet how he figures into all of this, but I know—sooner or later—She will let me know how he plays into the story line.   I’m not seeing any gunfights at this stage of the process, but I’m willing to bet that Leigh can handle a gun pretty well, considering that it seems he’s been cast in the Duke’s image, if there are any gunfights.   
Leigh comes back to Federal, a letter from Ethan in his pocket, and he’s supposed to go to work on the Diamond Bar M as foreman.  Ethan’s dead when Leigh arrives in Federal, shot in the back.  (I know I really have to have a long talk with Harrison Taylor, because the crime rate in his county seems a little high…)  I think this is where the land speculator is going to come into the story, but don’t quote me on that because She hasn’t told me yet.
Delia is on the same train as Leigh.  And, they both meet Katherine within minutes of arriving in Federal.  Katherine’s instant response to Leigh is to slap him across the face, tell him he’s about as low as a snake’s belly, and she has every intention of running the Diamond Bar M into the ground and then buy it out from under Delia.
Yeah, like I said…the voices won’t shut up.  

National hangover and edits

Okay, most people will probably think that somehow the “hangover” from the exhaustion brought on by the insanity which is the Collie Nationals and working on edits for The Devil’s Own Desperado which came while I was in Philadelphia have nothing to do with one another.  Let me change your mind.

For one week, my life is defined by a grooming area and show ring.  I get to the show site as soon as the doors open and often don’t leave until they’re turning out the lights and pushing us out the door.  I’m grooming dogs, showing dogs–and in the case of this year’s National, having a meltdown outside of the ring with every cut in the specials’ ring that Snape was making.    I pour myself into these dogs.  I spend hours a day with them, brushing them, bathing them, caring for them.  To quote Roger Carras, the esteemed announcer at Westminister Kennel Club for years, “Dogs are not my whole life, but they make my life whole.”  I have one client dog who carries so much coat, if he is not given a weekly bath and blown dry, his coat is so dense and so heavy, its own weight will cause his undercoat to mat down.  Right now, my smooths are losing every stitch of undercoat they own, so twice weekly baths are in order to bring them back into show coat.  Showing dogs and having them in prime condition is a serious commitment.  It is hard work, but the rewards are priceless.  Being told how wonderful my dogs look in the ring vindicates what I do.  Handing over a new champion to a deliriously happy owner is often the highlight of my show season.  Being able to show that new champion to an award of merit at the Nationals is incredibly gratifying.  Leaving an owner speechless with disbelief on the amazing condition of her dog does help to stroke my ego.

GCh. Gwyn Marc’s Against the Wind

However, the whole time I was in Philly, I knew when I got home, there would be one e-mail waiting for me from my editor at The Wild Rose Press which would have an attachment with editing suggestions for The Devil’s Own Desperado.  I opened up that e-mail when I got home, downloaded the attachment, and started crying.  I felt my editor had bled red all over the pages.  I immediately closed the attachment, saved it to my jump drive, and said, “I can’t do this.”

I went to bed, and I cried myself to sleep.  I couldn’t help but wonder how in heaven’s name my manuscript was contracted for publication if the thing needed that much editing.  There had to be some mistake–that following on the heels of that e-mail with its attachment would come a subsequent e-mail telling me that the publishing house had changed their minds and they really weren’t going to publish it.

After a good night’s sleep, I reopened that attachment.  It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.  Writing is just as much hard work and takes as much commitment as does this insane hobby I have of showing dogs.  I’m not afraid of hard work.  So, I took a deep breath and reread the e-mail and then began to read the editorial comments.  Frankly, the editing this manuscript needs is a lot of surface work, with some in-depth plot holes to repair.  But, one comment made me stop reading, made me sit back in my chair, and grin from ear to ear. That comment was “Colt is great! Readers are going to love him :).”


Colt is great…readers are going to love him. 


I’ve been told over and over to write what I love, and that I have to love my characters or else my readers won’t connect with those characters.  I admit, I love both Amelia and Colt.  Amelia has always been this very quiet, very composed young woman who is so much stronger and resilient than her appearance would allude to.  She is the embodiment of the proverb about still waters running deep.  Colt is a character near and dear to my heart.  I loved him so much, I named one of my smooth collies for him.  Colt (the collie) was a lovely tri smooth boy with gorgeous detail of head.  Colt was registered with the American Kennel Club as Wych’s Rolling Thunder (the original, working title of The Devil’s Own Desperado).  He finished his championship with points awarded to him by both all-breed judges and specialty judges, something I strive for in my breeding program–to have dogs who have a pretty enough head to win at specialty shows and yet still have the body and movement to be awarded wins from judges where movement is more valued than head detail.  Colt (the character) has a very gruff, almost cold exterior–but inside he’s a blasted toasted marshmallow.  His ability to “love ’em and leave ’em” ends abruptly when he meets Amelia, because with Amelia, he’s found what he’s longed for.  She offers him a chance to put his past as a gun-fighter behind him, to settle down, and live his life without the specter of his past rising up to destroy him.


So, as soon as this blog is posted, I’m back to the editing process.  Fortunately, the collies don’t need a bath for a few days.  So, Colt and Amelia can take precedent.  Snape, Tucker, Vander, Diva and the rest will have to wait a few days…

Thunderstorms, collies, characters, and cowardice

We were under a severe thunderstorm watch this afternoon.  I have several collies who really don’t like thunder and one is deathly afraid of it.  Long before the first rumble of thunder was heard, Snape began howling.  (Yes, I have a champion collie named “Snape.”  He was born the day that Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was released.)
This howl wasn’t his “I’m bored” howl, or his “Mommy, you’re home!” happy howl.  It was his “I’m terrified and I want in the basement in my crate where it’s safe” howl.  Needless to say, several collies were put safely in crates in the garage, and Snape was brought into the house.  He raced me to the basement and dove into his crate.  (And, please, before anyone says anything about dogs in crates—it’s like a den for them.  They feel safe there, guarded, and protected from the world.)  When Snape’s this terrified, there is no way he can stay in the rest of the house with me because all he does is hyperventilate and stress out, and he honestly feels safe in his crate in the basement.
Once I was sure he had settled down (which took him about ten seconds), I went outside to watch the weather roll in.  I started thinking about my cowardly collie and the fictional character I named him for.  The conversation I had with someone at his first show came to mind.  It went something like, “HOW can you name such a beautiful puppy for such a horrible character?”
“Snape’s not a horrible character.  Yes, he’s a piece of work, but he’s not horrible.”
“He killed Dumbledore!”
“Yes, and I’m not sure why, but I’ll bet every last dollar I have that Dumbledore told him to do it, or he had made an Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore to kill him if the old man asked him to.”
“Yeah, right…”
(AND, NOW FOR THE DISCLAIMER:  IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE HARRY POTTER SERIES OR SEEN THE MOVIES, STOP READING NOW!  SPOILER ALERT)
Needless to say, by the end of the last book, my belief in Snape and his never wavering from the side of the Light was vindicated, and quite frankly, Dumbledore wasn’t the gentle, sweet, caring character quite a few people seemed to believe he was.  (Trust me when I write I could go on a pages long rant about how cruel, manipulative, and vindictive Dumbledore truly was, but this isn’t the time or the place for it.)  I was one of those who always believed in Snape, from the very first book, and I always felt that there was more than a vein of pettiness and evil in Dumbledore.  I fell in love with Snape long before Alan Rickman portrayed him in the movies.  Alan Rickman as Snape was simply frosting on the cake for me. 
However, I’m digressing from the point of this blog entry.  That poor dog, howling his terror of thunderstorms, got me to thinking about the character of Snape and how (in my humble opinion) J.K. Rowling created a personality in Snape that was a “gift of a character” and yet because he was so layered and faceted, he was a character a lot of the Harry Potter fans could get behind and grow to love, despite Snape’s many short-comings.  And, he was a character that Ms. Rowling could never understand why people loved him so.  Allow me for a moment to be completely rude and state, “Well, DUUUUUUUH!”
There are parts of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 that I honestly cannot watch a second time.  The first time I saw those scenes, I was sobbing and thinking, “Stop, you fools!  Stop!  Look at him.  He doesn’t want to be doing this.  Just stop!”  One of those scenes is when Harry steps out of the student body and accuses Snape of killing Dumbledore and demands to know how he could do such a thing to a man “who trusted you.”  Another is the scene where Snape duels with Professor McGonnagall in the Great Hall of Hogwarts. McGonnagall calls Snape a coward when he flees the Great Hall. 
Coward?  Coward?!?!?  Really?  Never once, in any of the books or movies—other than in the chapter “Snape’s Worst Memory”—does Snape ever retaliate when attacked.  He blocks and parries, but he doesn’t attack. 
How much courage does it take to merely defend rather than return the attack, especially when facing an opponent as skilled and deadly as you are?  How much courage does it take to face the most evil being your world has seen in a generation—or longer—and play double agent, knowing every moment could be your last?  How much courage does it take to keep your mouth shut, when you know in your last moments, that evil Dark Wizard is going to kill you, and with one sentence, you can send him looking for a fairly defenseless boy, because you aren’t the one he really needs to kill if that evil Dark Wizard wants to control the most powerful wand of all time?  But you don’t say it because you know that boy deserves to live. 
Coward?  I don’t think so.
And, what does any of this have to do with the writing life?  I don’t know how it applies to other authors, but I know that when I write, I want to write characters as compelling, as faceted, as complex as J. K. Rowling created, the kind of characters that readers grow to care deeply about and remember long after the last page is read.  I want to pull the many threads of the story line together to form a rich tapestry, shimmering with the magic that every author weaves within their story. 
And if the Muse is ever generous enough with me to give me that “gift of a character”, as J. K. Rowling referred to Snape, I won’t be so ungrateful to kill that character, and certainly would never kill that character in such a senseless, demeaning manner where that death served truly no other purpose than to thumb the author’s nose at the myriad of that character’s fans.
Now, to go check on my Snape and give him a hug, and assure him that he is loved and as long as he lives, there will never be a shallow, petty bitch at my house named “Lily.”