"She's no smarter than a bug,"
Frank spat out the words, as if this was something that had been niggling in his throat for a long time. "Food? She'll come. Blanket on a cold night? You got her. But get her to do the simplest dang thing you want? Good luck with that."
Cassie watched Reis in the stall. The mare's ears twitched with the electric current of Frank's speech. Reis pinned her ears back when Frank slapped the stall door. Cassie started, too. Reis flipped her ears forward like antennae homing in on a prize when Cassie's voice broke the silence.
"You just don't understand them," Cassie said. "You know, you're not very good with animals. The thing is, they don't have all your damn filters. Reis will give you the truth, whether you want it or not. Whether you can see it or not."
Cassie and Frank had a marriage of inconvenience. It began for all the wrong reasons, and neither of them could remember exactly what those reasons were. They both had day jobs, but Cassie had always loved horses, and she built a nice sideline raising and selling a handful of weanlings and yearlings each year.
They were distracted by their own interests, but things really started to sour when Frank got "laid off" from his real job, and turned his attention to the horses. "It was a hit job," at his old job, he said to anyone who would listen. "All political BS."
Chardonnay was the alpha mare at Rancho Mucho Vino, and Merlot would be the beta mare. That made Reisling gamma, number three in line, followed by the younger horses. Usually, it would take increasing maturity, strength and attitude, to move a horse up in the standings. But Reis was going to take a different tack to make her way in the world.
A horse's rank in the herd gave it first dibs when the alfalfa rolled off the truck bed, or when the best shade trees were up for grabs, or when Cassie came around with a bag full of carrots. And it came with a don't-mess-with-me aura for all the lesser horses to see.
The other thing about a lower rank in the herd was that it made a horse more susceptible to Frank's bile. Ever since Chardonnay planted a horseshoe-shaped tattoo on Frank's belly, he directed his ire at the meeker members of Rancho Mucho Vino.
Brute force could move a horse up. A youngster just finding its strength was liable to advance, but plain old charisma could do the trick. Reis had all the charisma a mare could ever want, but that wasn't the tool she was about to use to leapfrog in status.
Most of the time, Cassie fed and watered the horses, turned them out, mucked their stalls, and brought them in at night. But once in awhile, when she got tied up at the office, she'd ask Frank to go out and put them up. It was a coin toss whether he'd get Chardonnay and Reis into the right stalls. Chardonnay was taller, more muscular than Reis, but they were both gray, and that was the only characteristic that registered with Frank.
To Cassie, horse's had faces. To Frank, they had heads. Frank couldn't care about a face unless it was on a greenback dollar.
But Cassie sometimes wondered how a horse's idea of beauty aligned with her own thoughts on the matter. If more horses favored Reis than Chardonnay, wouldn't the overall beauty of horses increase over time?
But maybe that was just it: horses didn't get to choose their mates any more, people did. And more often than not, those people were as beauty-blind as Frank.
Cassie would tease Frank about mixing the horses up, which got under his skin, and that made it all the more satisfying. But there were extenuating circumstances. Early on, she'd realized that Reis had figured out how to jigger the latches on the stalls. After Cassie put the security cameras in, she saw that Reis would spring all her friends in the middle of the night, and come morning, there was no telling who would be in which stall. Sometimes they doubled up. Sometimes, they nickered from down the aisle when Cassie found an empty stall along the shed row.
So she could blame the mix-up on Frank and he'd be none the wiser. She never told Frank about these shenanigans. But she felt like she could use the outcome to bait him. Cassie and Reis shared a common goal, and they were both about to move up in their respective hierarchies.
When the horses saw Cassie's car in the evening, they raced each other to the barn for a little attention and the promise of hay, a scoop of feed and fresh water. When Frank was on duty, he usually wound up roaming the pasture with halters and a flashlight, trying to cuss them in for the night. That usually took a while. A good, long time. Sometimes Cassie wished she had a security camera pointed out to the pasture to capture that for posterity.
While the horses had rules they all understood for choosing a leader, the humans of Rancho Mucho Vino were not so fortunate. Cassie pitted brains and common sense against Frank's short temper and stubbornness, but neither of them knew how that would pan out in the end.
When she needled him about his failure to persuade the animals to do what he wanted, he countered that he was a numbers guy. He'd handle the business end of the operation, while she played with the horses. But a business was more than numbers and Frank sometimes struggled with the concept of a supply chain.
"Where the hell is the hay man?" she asked him on Friday morning. "You did order the hay, didn't you?"
He didn't need to say a word because she saw the subtle shift in features that transformed his face into the gaslight mask she knew so well. He didn't need to say anything, but that didn't stop him, from spluttering, "Of course I did. You know, I think Hey, Hey, Hay has been falling apart lately. They can't seem to get anything right…" and on and on and on.
He kept babbling as she whipped out her phone, pulled up Hey, Hey, Hay on speed dial, and paid a premium for an emergency order. He was in a foul mood the rest of the day. Fine. Let it be for the rest of his life.
A stroke of horse genius helped Reis come into her own that August. Every summer, the herd gathered around a pear tree a hundred yards from the barn, and waited for Mother Nature to do her work. Reis saw each morning how Chardonnay and Merlot would move in first to scoop up the fruit that had dropped over night. And then the rest of them would follow.
But there were still so many pears on the tree, just out of reach.
It probably wasn't the first time, but Cassie came up short and felt her breath catch the day she saw Reis stretch up to grab a branch, shake it, and watch the fruit come raining down. Chardonnay and Merlot followed up on her bonanza, but no horse had any interest in challenging Reis' rise in the hierarchy. She'd won them over with a feat of magic.
Each morning, Reis would work her trick, eat her fill, and share the bounty with the herd. That's how she earned deference at the water trough and the hay bale. And she waited patiently for the last seal of her ascendance.
That finally came the day Cassie got tied up at her day job, and she called Frank to bring the horses in that evening in August.
"Sure. Fine. Okay. Alright," he said, making her wonder what in hell she would find when she drove by Rancho Mucho Vino on the way home that night.
As it turned out, the horses were in their stalls, but Reis' stall door was wide open, as if she'd wandered in on her own.
The sun was going down on Rancho Mucho Vino, but the scene in the barn didn't look right, even allowing for Reisling's usual Houdini antics. She called Frank's phone and heard a faint ring tone from out in the pasture.
Cassie found him lying near the pear tree with a switch by his right hand and a pear minus one bite near his left. He was moaning enough that she knew he was alive, so she went back to the barn and got a bucket of water.
In Cassie's mind, dousing him was the act that put her in charge at Rancho Mucho Vino.
When she got him home and helped him into a warm bath -- what a baby! -- she saw the final act that installed Reis as the leader of her pack.
Dead-square centered in the horseshoe tattoo Chardonnay had left on her husband's belly, was a new one, fresher, redder, and a little bit smaller.
Cassie would wait until morning to tell him about the mark of the beast.