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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Seven Sisters
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When I got back, Chase offered to open the tasting room for a private tasting and Dove, Daddy, Gabe, Lydia, Susa, and Sam accepted. Willow, Arcadia, and Etta went upstairs, and I decided to take Cappy up on her offer to show me the horses. With Bliss riding in the backseat, Cappy drove down to the stables in her faded blue Jeep Wagoneer.

“I’ve had this baby since 1972, and she’s never broke down on me once,” Cappy bragged, dodging a pothole in the dirt road leading to the stables. She gave a cheerful honk to the group walking down the long driveway toward the winery and tasting room.

“Sam’s mother is quite a looker,” she said, glancing over at me, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “No doubt Sam got the best of both parents. I can see why my granddaughter would fall back on her heels for him. Just like you did for his father.”

“Grandma!” Bliss said in an aggrieved voice.

I stuck my tongue out at Cappy. Bliss gave an uncharacteristic giggle.

“Benni Harper, you haven’t changed a bit since you were sixteen,” Cappy said good-naturedly.

“That’s not true,” I said, turning to grin at Bliss. “I know way more cuss words now.”

She and Bliss laughed, and for the first time this evening, it seemed as if Bliss relaxed a little. About a half mile from the house, we reached the stables. Cappy had built a beautiful setup—a row of freshly painted double stalls, enough for forty horses, two hot walkers, an outside wash rack, three corrals, a separate tack room, a graded half-mile training track, and plenty of shade trees.

“Are you full up?” I asked as we walked through the first stall row. A black-and-white long-haired barn cat followed us, darting between our legs, mewing loudly.

“Almost,” she said. “We’ve got six free stalls, but they’ll be filled soon.” She bent down and picked up the complaining cat. “Figaro, you’re almost as big a nag as Giles. You don’t need one more saucer of cream.” The cat purred as she stroked his black head.

I reached over and scratched under his chin. “He looks like he’s wearing a hood.”

“He’s a criminal, all right,” Cappy said. “Stole our hearts a long time ago.” The cat purred a reply.

“Grandma’s been taking in boarders this year,” Bliss explained, stopping to fondle the nose of a strawberry roan filly with a pencil-thin blaze. She put her face close to the filly’s and blew softly in the horse’s nostrils.

“Quarter horse breeding isn’t what it was,” Cappy said. “Not since the early eighties when they took away the tax benefits for racehorse owners.”

“JJ mentioned that this morning. How would that affect you?” I asked.

Bliss jumped in with the answer. “It affects everyone involved with racing or breeding. If rich people can’t use racehorses as tax write-offs for their other businesses, then they don’t buy them anymore, and people lose jobs all the way down the line—trainers, grooms, pony girls, breeders, feed brokers, people who work at the racetrack, farriers and tack suppliers. I could go on and on. A lot of people are involved with the business of horse racing and breeding who don’t work directly with it and usually they don’t have the education or means to find jobs anywhere else so they end up on welfare or robbing liquor stores.” She smiled. “Which, of course, gives
me
job security. One thing about being a cop, there’s always bad guys.”

Cappy smiled and passed me a handful of carrots. “Got her trained pretty good, don’t I?”

“You sure do.” I took the carrots, breaking them in half as I followed her down the center aisle of the stalls. “I understand what she’s saying. It’s like when beef consumption goes down. It affects more than just the ranchers who raise cattle. And most of the jobs involving cattle are the same as with your industry, people who can’t get jobs in other industries. Not everyone can be a computer programmer.”

“Exactly,” Cappy said. “I wish a few politicians understood that.”

We walked from stall to stall, feeding carrots to the horses as she relayed their histories, showing me the ones she had high hopes for and the ones she intended to run in claiming races.

“Claiming races?” I said. I’d been to a few horse races in my life, but didn’t know much about the intricacies or terminology of the industry.

“That’s when the horse is basically up for sale in a race,” she explained. “People can make a bid for the horse by filing a claiming form and leaving a certified check on deposit before post time. The purse”—she paused and looked at me—“ . . . that’s the money awarded to the winners of the race, goes to the owner who entered the horse, but the horse will legally belong to the successful claimant so even if the horse gets injured during the race, it’s the responsibility of the new owner. It’s a gamble, though. But if you know your stuff and have a good working crystal ball, you can pick up some great deals in claiming races. We’ve bought two claimers that went on to become stakes horses and bred them into our line.”

“What’s a stakes horse?” This was a whole new world to me. Good ranch horses only needed three qualities—excellent health, no fear of cattle, and a willingness to learn. Some of our best ranch horses were uglier than a bucket of mud, but they had a magic sense when it came to working cattle.

“In simple terms, a stakes horse is one that, after it’s shown exceptional talent by winning races and clocking some fast times, can run at the big money. Stakes horses are the best of the best.” Cappy stroked the nose of a muscular bay with friendly “people” eyes.

“This business sounds about as predictable and profitable as cattle ranching,” I said, stroking the neck of a young mahogany-colored horse who had finished his carrot and was tossing his head for more. “Young man, that’s all you get tonight.” I held out my empty hand. “See, all gone.”

“That’s Churn Dash, a two-year-old we’re planning on running in a few races this year. He foaled out late so we’ve waited on entering him. His mama was Seven Sisters Dash. She wasn’t a great runner herself, but she sure can produce them.”

“He’s beautiful,” I said, rubbing my fingers along the star and stripe on his face. “What a great name. Did you know it’s a quilt pattern?”

“Actually, I did,” Cappy said. “In my office I have a quilt made by Mother in that pattern. We named him in honor of her.”

“I never got to know Great-Grandma Rose that well,” Bliss said, coming over and running her hand down Churn Dash’s neck, scratching his withers. “I wish Susa hadn’t moved us away when we were so little.” Her tone was slightly bitter.

“Your mother always was one who had trouble taking the bit,” Cappy said. “Guess she wanted her own life.”

“Your great-grandma is certainly a famous person in this county,” I said to Bliss. “They practically have a shrine to her down in General Hospital’s children’s wing.”

“She raised most of the money that built that wing,” Cappy said. “And she started both the candy striper volunteer group and the home nurse program. Health care in this county, especially for children, owes a lot to Mother.”

We went into the tack room and working office, and I couldn’t help but admire the rich assortment of shiny, well-cared-for tack. As Cappy listened to her answering machine messages, I walked past the long row of photos of winning horses on the panelled wall. In the center was a large, expensively framed photograph of Seven B winning a race by a length. A photo underneath showed a younger Cappy and a bunch of other people posing in the winner’s circle with the horse and his trainer, a strong-looking blond man with a thick, reddish mustache. Everyone wore wide smiles.

“That was taken fifteen years ago,” Bliss said. “When Seven B won the All-American Futurity. That’s the biggest quarter horse competition in the world. It’s a million-dollar purse.”

“How exciting that must have been,” I commented.

Cappy came and stood next to us. “Yes, but like anything else this competitive, you’re only as good as your last win. Seven B hasn’t even produced a stakes winner in a few years. We’re hoping that will change soon. Believe me, when you aren’t winning at the track, only the feed man knows your name.” She checked her watch. “We’d better get back and see to our guests. They’re probably ready for dessert about now.” At the Jeep Bliss hung back.

“I think I’ll walk,” she said. “I need the exercise.”

Cappy, her face aggravated, started to say something, but I broke in.

“Want some company? I could use a walk, too, after that fabulous spread.”

Bliss shrugged. “I don’t mind.”

“Okay,” Cappy said. “I’ll see you two in a few minutes.” She reached into the glove compartment of the Jeep and took out a small flashlight. “Take this. There’s lots of holes in the road.”

“Oh, Grandma ...” Bliss started.

“Don’t you, ‘Oh, Grandma’ me,” Cappy countered. “I’m only—”

“Thanks,” I said, breaking into her sentence and taking the flashlight. “We’ll be careful.”

“She’s already driving me nuts,” Bliss complained as we watched her grandmother drive up the road, a small cloud of dust trailing after her. “She’s the last person I expected to be treating me like I was a piece of expensive crystal.”

“She’s just concerned,” I said, falling in with her irritated strides.

“She was breaking green horses when she was pregnant with my mom. Great-Aunt Willow said they considered locking her in her room the last three months.”

“Maybe that’s why she’s so concerned about you. ‘Do as I say and not as I do. If your friends wanted to jump off a cliff, would you? Don’t make that face, young lady, or someday it will freeze that way.’ All the things mothers and grandmothers say to us to try and keep us from being hurt. What they’re actually saying is—‘I’m afraid the world will hurt you the way it did me and I don’t want that to happen.’ Of course, they can’t stop it and they know it, so they tell us dumb things and for the moment they’re saying it, they feel better.”

She was silent, and I thought I’d gone too far in my mini-lecture. “Then again,” I added, bumping her shoulder with mine, “they could be just trying to keep us from having any fun at all.”

She laughed and bumped me back. “I think that’s it.”

We continued walking up the gravel road toward the house. The flashlight illuminated the path as we looked up to the September sky, wild with stars, trying to remember constellations we’d learned in science class.

“Too many years ago for me,” I said, after only being able to find the Big and Little Dippers and Orion and the planet Venus. Bliss picked out Aries the Ram and Aquarius the Waterbearer.

“Did you know that there is a cluster of stars called the Seven Sisters?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t.”

“My dad showed them to me.” She pointed up to a spot in the sky where a faint grouping of stars was visible. “It’s in the Taurus constellation. It’s also known as Pleiades. Seven stars can be seen with the naked eye, but with a telescope or really good binoculars you can see that there’s actually a couple of hundred. Look, they appear to be close together, but actually they’re really far apart.” She gave me a slight smile. “As my dad says, just like Cappy and her sisters.”

“Seems like the name of your ranch has all sorts of hidden meanings.”

“No kidding,” she said.

The hint of sharpness in her voice caused me to glance at her in surprise, but she kept walking and didn’t elaborate.

Sam,
I thought,
what have you gotten yourself into?

“Let’s stop here for a moment,” she said when we reached a weathered wooden bench in front of a large metal building. A small security light bathed the area in a stark white glow. “I’m feeling a little sick.”

I sat down next to her. “Want me to go get the Jeep?”

“No, it’s not that much farther. It’s just that I seem to be getting my morning sickness at night. Lucky for me, I’m on day shift for the next three months.”

We sat silently for a moment, uncomfortable with the mention of her pregnancy. The fact that I was married not only to her future father-in-law, but also her boss caused an awkwardness between us that was hard to breach.

“So, what building is this?” I asked, turning to look.

“It’s part of the winery. We store barrels of fermenting wine here. My uncle Chase has his office here.” She put a fist up to her mouth, her face grayish-green in the harsh light.

“Should I go get Sam?”

She swallowed hard, and her coloring came back. “No, it’s just a spell. Really, I don’t do this very often. I’ve found a good doctor, and he says I shouldn’t have any problems, that this feeling sick is perfectly normal and should pass in another month. I’m going to be able to work until the baby’s born.” She turned pink, which looked a whole lot better than green. “I’ll tell the chief that myself. I’m not trying to, like, pull strings or anything. I’ve made an appointment with him next week to talk about my schedule.”

I touched her hand. “Bliss, you don’t have to explain anything to me. What happens between you and Gabe on a professional level is not my business. Gabe is adamant about keeping his personal and work life separate.”

“I guess Sam and I have screwed that up, haven’t we?”

I gave her an encouraging smile. “I doubt it’s the first time this has happened in a family and I also doubt it’ll be the last.”

Not answering, she looked over at the dark vineyards. In the cool darkness, we watched a partial moon rise over the vineyards, the Santa Lucia mountains craggy and black behind them. The heavy scent of ripe grapes sugared the air, giving it a flavor you could almost taste. In the distance, a horse whinnied, the sound causing a nervous echo from another horse, then another and another. Like cattle, horses were such group animals. When one of them was afraid or agitated, it passed through the herd like fire in parched rye grass.

“The hills remind me of a quilt pattern called Moon Over Mountain,” I said, just to break the uneasy silence. “It’s a simple one, with clean lines and not a lot of pieces. But it doesn’t really capture the beauty of mountains. Mountains have such wonderful three-dimensional peaks and valleys that are impossible to capture in a flat pattern. Like the difference between a cartoon character and a real person. We get the bare essence, but nothing else.”

BOOK: Seven Sisters
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