The Lady Mare

By Beth

Foster Brothers AU (Seven)

Notes: November challenge offered by CelestaSunStar. This month I want you to hit the books for your ideas. You can put the Seven into your favorite story, or bring the characters out into whatever universe of M7 you think fits the best. Or the book itself can be a central plot device, much like NotTasha's "Down the Amazon" Series. If it's a published work of fiction, such as a novel, fairy tale, manga, graphic novel, or a TV series in book form, you can use it.

The book I chose is called: The Dingle Ridge Fox and Other Stories. I read this book when I was just a girl and fell in love with one of the stories in it. The author was Sam Savitt, and if you’re a horse lover you’ll know who he is. He’s written several books and he’s the most famous American horse artist. He died this past December.

I would love to hear what you think…even if you hated it. I can’t fix what I don’t know is broke.


She wasn’t much to look at, not really black—and yet, she wasn’t gray. That’s why we called her Mouse…because of her color. She was still classified as a pony, even though she stood fourteen one and a half hands. Her tail dragged the ground and she had two white socks on her front legs. There was a small star in her forehead, and she had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen.

As the mother…well, foster mother, of seven boys, the old lady mare helped make my job that much easier. She was just a foal when she came to Orin and me. Perhaps I should start over. I adopted Mouse because I couldn’t help it. She just looked so sad standing out in that pasture, all alone, without a friend in the world…so I took her home. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent. Orin wasn’t happy with me; we barely had room enough for our dog at the time. So we did the only thing we could.

We moved.

It was a small ranch style house with four bedrooms and a barn out back. Mouse got the biggest stall. I wasn’t a horsewoman at the time, and being pregnant with my son Steven I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her. However, when Orin and I applied to social services to become foster parents we had no idea how desperate they were. And neither one of us knew how important Mouse would be for us, or our boys.

Josiah was our first. He was barely six when he came to us. Having come from an abusive home, he was shy and quiet. I took him out to look at Mouse and I think they both understood each other. Josiah taught her to lead, how to stand while having her hooves worked on…and yet neither one of them were old enough to really understand just how they were helping each other. Orin had gotten a few horse books. Josiah, being too young to really read and understand them, Orin read to him. They trained that lady mare lots of tricks: how to bow, count, and even sit. They were quite the team, Josiah and Mouse.

I remember after Steven had died, those two put on a show for me outside my bedroom window. It was the first time in over a month that I’d laughed. I’ll never forget Josiah bending over to grab a rope and Mouse shoving him on the rump, pushing him over. She looked at me and I could have sworn she was laughing right along with me.

By the time Josiah was nine he was just too big for Mouse, so Orin went and got him a new horse. I think the little lady knew she’d been dropped, left for something better. Her ears dropped a little and her head sank. She even went off her feed for a couple of days. She’d stick her head out of the barn and watch Josiah ride his new horse around the arena. I knew she missed him.

She wasn’t alone for long though. Chris was our next one. He was four at the time he came to our door with hair so blonde the sun borrowed its strength. He was a go-getter from the start. The first time he laid eyes on Mouse he was hooked. He was going to be a cowboy and go to Nationals before he was five. I have to laugh about it now. I think Mouse knew what was coming when that little blonde boy charged into her stall with eyes as big as saucers and a smile that could melt anyone’s heart. She walked right up to him and let him pet her, but she’d take a step back.

It think she had Chris all figured out.

I used to watch from the kitchen sink as Chris would enter the pen with Orin and they’d go out and catch Mouse. Her favorite stunt was letting her newest comrade think he was quite the rider. He’d be out there riding bareback and bouncing up and down on her back trying his hardest to sit her trot. Then, without warning, she’d slam on her brakes and drop her head. Poor Chris, he’d slide down her neck as though he had grease on his butt. He’d sit there and look at her with his knees up to his chest. She’d toss her head and find the nearest patch of grass.

There wasn’t any fooling ol’ Mouse.

By the time Chris was five—he and Mouse shared the same age—Buck had come along. The little three year old was quite the handful from the get go. The doctors had said Buck had a mental disorder having to do with his attention span. I didn’t buy it of course. The poor child had been born in the back alley of a saloon, and he was later found in the arms of his dead mother.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hate the foster care system, not because of what they do, but because of what they have to do.

Buck was poorly when Orin and I got him. With a head full of brown hair and big dark eyes, he reminded me of a basset hound puppy, with skinny little arms and legs, he’d run around the house getting into anything he could. I had to make sure all of our cat toys were put away; otherwise Buck was sticking them into his mouth.

It was Josiah and Chris who introduced Mouse to Buck. I should have known that the little mare would have zapped that boy of all his eagerness. From what I understand—I wasn’t there you see—ol’ Mouse sniffed Buck’s face and he in turn reached up and patted that velvety nose. Josiah helped Buck up onto Mouse’s back and Chris led them around the arena.

I got home just in time to see Buck lean forward and burry his face in her course black mane. He’d entwined his fingers and just lay there, as though he was discovering something wonderful for the first time. Orin had come out of the house and stood beside me, his only words were, “I think it’s time to get another horse”. I smiled and gave him a hug. It was true; Buck had just staked his claim on the lady mare. He never screamed out at the dinner table again, and I only had to ask him once when I wanted him to do something.

I think Mouse had been a special gift that had been taken from Buck when he was just too young to suffer from something so horrible. When he was four he went missing from his bedroom. Orin and I searched the house and eventually found him in Mouse’s stall, crying his heart out. He didn’t know why he was so sad, just that he was. It was Mouse that gave him the ability to mourn his momma. I sat there holding him, crying just the same. I think I was saying goodbye to Steven. Ol’ Mouse, she just stood there like the angel she was, watching us, making sure we were going to be okay.

And we were.

Our family was growing by leaps and bounds. With three growing boys, three horses, two dogs, and a cat, my days were filled. Orin helped as much as he could, and bless his heart for it. I remember getting the phone call from Social Services saying they needed a temporary home for a black child. Of course I agreed, why wouldn’t I? All children are the same.

Nathan was a year younger than Buck—who was now six. Nathan was a handsome young boy with a powerfully driven soul. He knew what he wanted and he went after it. It had been reported that young Nathan was aggressive, temperamental, and rude. He wasn’t. Those strong characteristics were simply his way of communicating. He was a sensitive boy who only knew how to make his point clear by fighting, and he was temperamental because he’d been forced to be, and he wasn’t rude…just driven. Orin and I both made it clear when we agreed to take Nathan that he had a permanent home to go to when he more ‘in and out’ of strangers’ homes. It wasn’t fair to him, and it wasn’t fair to the system.

So, we got Nathan…permanently. 

Out of all our sons, Nathan was the least horse crazy. Though he enjoyed riding and being with the animals, he found solace in his books. It paid off later when he graduated from high school as valedictorian. However, I’d catch the youngster out grooming Mouse, or speaking to her softly. And she’d stand there and listen to his every word. She couldn’t talk, but she communicated with her heart. She’d nudge him when he needed some advice, and she’d nicker to him before he left on the school bus. It seemed as though she knew he had a game, or even a big test.

One summer after Josiah had taken Chris and Buck out riding the threesome came back with long faces and worried eyes. Buck was leading Mouse, and she was limping something awful. I called the vet who came out and looked her over. Nathan was there, watching, listening, and learning. Doctor Black said that it was just a pulled tendon and rest was the best thing for her. She wasn’t a workhorse, so in time, the wound would heal. If it didn’t, he’d come right out and put her down, there wasn’t any need for her to suffer.

It was Nathan and Buck who worked day and night on her leg. Nathan came up with all kinds of treatments: wraps, poultices, and even physical therapy. I knew then that Orin and I had a doctor on our hands. Nathan did all he could for her, and it all paid off. I don’t think he’d ever had a prouder moment than when ol’ Mouse trotted out of her stall without limping.

A few days later Orin and I received news that there were two youngsters at Social Services that needed immediate placement. Most people were hesitant to take them because of medical problems. We, however, had the money and the insurance to cover whatever costs may occur. So JD and Vin both came to live with us.

Vin had been born with epilepsy. Though it wasn’t severe, it was enough to scare most adoptive parents away. He was five and a half when he came to us, and one of the handsomest children I’d ever seen. He had the biggest blue eyes and the sweetest of smiles. He was small for his size, but as tough as they came. I guess he had to be. I had thought on several occasions that he and Chris could have been brothers, but I knew Chris’ parents had been killed in an automobile accident. I’m still not sure what happened to Vin’s parents, but that really doesn’t matter now, doest it? 

JD had come to us just three days after Vin, and at three years of age he was the quietest child I’d ever dealt with. He was so tiny. I remember his mop of black hair that never wanted to lay flat. He grows it a little long now; I think he’s still got a complex about it. I had carried him around on my back for the first few months he was with us, he was just too weak to walk…and I really think that’s why he felt so comfortable on the back of a horse.

JD had been born with a heart murmur. The doctors had told me repeatedly that if it got worse they’d have to operate. However, they hoped—as did I—that he would grow out of it. He did, eventually, but for the first couple of years that he lived with us, it wasn’t unusual for him to get lightheaded and sick.

I remember it was a Saturday afternoon and we were all outside enjoying the last weekend before school started. Orin and the boys decided to have a bar-be-que.  I can still see my husband standing over the grill wearing my kitchen apron. He even looked handsome in ruffles. JD watched his brothers from the porch and I watched as the others brought out the ol’ lady mare and Josiah took her through some of her old tricks. She still remembered them after nine years.

Vin had always wanted to ride and be independent; probably more so than most kids his age because of his disability, and that was one thing Mouse could do for him. He could ride her without any help and he felt like a normal boy being astride that little mare. She was so good with him, and I never had to worry.

I should have known something was wrong when Mouse stopped in the corral and refused to move. Vin sat atop her, trying his hardest to get her to move but she stayed in her spot. Even Chris came out and tried to pull on the bridle, but ol’ Mouse held her position.

It happened suddenly, and I barely had time to jump up before Chris grabbed Vin around the waist and help his little brother to the ground. The seizure was short, thank the Lord, and when it stopped, Vin was only awake for a small amount of time before falling asleep. I carried him to the house and held him close, just letting him sleep in my arms. Mouse perked her ears forward and watched my every movement.

I think she approved of my behavior.

I snuck out later that night and gave her an apple.

I think she knew why.

When I patted her coat like the millions of times I’d done before, I felt her sensitivity and that simple—yet complicated bond she had with all my kids. I knew at that point I could trust her with everything…and she trusted me.

Mouse was as much of a part of our little family as anyone. If we had a family portrait done, she was in the middle of it…wearing her happy grin. JD and Vin became more attached to her as each year passed and nothing could be done to sway their affection. As soon as Vin was old enough he was put on a special medication for his epilepsy and thankfully it worked like a charm. However, Mouse was just as attentive as ever to each of the boys’ needs.

They needed her as much as she needed them.

I had thought our family was complete, and why wouldn’t I have? We had six growing boys in our home now, ranging in ages from 16 to 4, but when Orin came to me with one last request, I couldn’t deny any child that needed a home.

All of our boys had either lost their families due to death or abuse, Ezra came to us after being abandoned. Josiah had told me once that at home, while getting beaten by his father, he knew at least that his dad knew he was there…and that was better than being invisible. So I wasn’t prepared for the little boy with the bright green eyes and the saddest of smiles. When Orin brought him home, Ezra held onto a small little black kitten that he’d managed to find. My husband had told me that they had tried to take the kitten, but to no avail. Every time someone came close to that little cat that little boy would curl in on himself and hide. I only smiled and carefully showed Ezra to the room he’d be sharing with his new brothers.

He could keep the kitten, and why shouldn’t he have been able to…everything else had been taken away.

It was hard at first, trying to explain to all the boys why Ezra had nightmares, why he didn’t want anyone touching his things, and why he hid when he got scared. It was hard for me, and to be honest, I had thought that our home wasn’t the best place for him. He limited himself to his room and his kitten that he’d named Harpo.

I was up late one night, hemming Vin’s jeans, when I heard the screen door open and close. I could see the light of a flashlight bobble up and down as it moved across the ground toward the stable. I could see Ezra with Harpo tucked up against his shoulder enter the barn. I smiled, knowing ol’ Mouse would once again work her magic.

And she did.    

Maybe I shouldn’t have, I don’t really know, but I remember entering that barn and listening to a frightened little boy talk to his cat and that mousy little mare. He told her things that nobody had ever heard, or ever would again. She just stood there, munching on her hay—listening intently. Harpo found a comfortable place on Mouse’s back and he too listened to that child tell his secrets. I carefully snuck back to the house and put on a pot of water. I then pulled the can of cocoa out of the cupboard and waited.

When I heard the screen door open again, I looked up and met green eyes. I asked him if he wanted to have a hot cup of cocoa with me, and hesitantly, he agreed. It didn’t take long to learn that Ezra was the most sensitive of the seven boys, although, he’d never admit it. He had a tendency to take things to heart, and it didn’t matter what it was.

I watched my boys grow into strong independent young men. Josiah graduated college with a master’s degree in psychology. He got married just a few years ago, and is now raising two young girls. He may not look like Orin or I, but I see my husband’s influence in him. That timid little boy that came to our door so many years ago is now helping others.

Chris owns his own ranch now. He’s raising Quarter Horses for cutting stock. He loves his work and his wife Sara is just as beautiful as he is strong. She’s expecting a child come spring, and I expect it will be a boy with Chris’ coloring. Sara believes he’ll be a hellion, and he should be…just like his father.

Buck graduated from the police academy and is now a deputy sheriff here in town. He still hasn’t found the woman who’ll tame him. Whoever she is, she’ll have to be strong, and I think he’s partial to the new owner of Black Palomino saloon. He can’t seem to eat enough peanuts there, and I don’t care to think of all the beer he’s consuming.

Nathan graduated from medical school just like Orin and I thought he would. He decided on emergency care… I think it’s good that he did. If Nathan isn’t challenged—he’s not happy, and he’ll defiantly be challenged there. He told me he wants to purpose to Rain, his girlfriend, after Thanksgiving… I think he’s waiting for his promotion. I expect those two will have a large family. I can’t see Nathan with anything less.

Vin decided to become a stuntman. I can’t bear to think of it. He makes my heart race when I watch the movies he’s done and all the stunts he’s pulled. They love him in Hollywood because he’s so daring. If someone says he can’t do it…by George, he does it—plain and simple. He’s still got his looks, just like the rest of the boys, but he’s shy about it. I think that drives the girls wild. He takes his medication for his epilepsy everyday and hasn’t had a problem in a long time.

JD just graduated from college. He’s a schoolteacher now, and I couldn’t be more proud. He’s got his own classroom in the next town over and he loves his students. He decided on sixth grade, mostly because he likes that age the best…but I think it’s because he has such a youthful face. On most days I think the students would think he was just one of them…JD doesn’t agree with me though.

I think back on my boys and remember the good moments, not the sad ones. I remember watching Ezra’s cat Harpo walk out to the stable every morning after Ezra left for school. Harpo would enter ol’ Mouse’s stall and make a bed on the lady’s rump and sleep the day away. Mouse never cared. She was content waiting for one of the boys to come out and visit her. In her later years I think Harpo became her best friend. That old cat would take its mice and birds into Mouse’s stall and eat them in the corner. They were quite the pair. During the spring months when the grass was coming up green and the days were just warm enough to work in, I’d see that cat playing with Mouse’s tail. That old horse would swat at imaginary flies, just so Harpo could have something to do. As soon as the school bus dropped the boys off, Harpo and Mouse would race each other back to the fence and Ezra would give them the remains of his lunch. They seemed to live for those moments.

When Ezra left for college Harpo and Mouse spent more time together. I’d always see them out basking in the summer sun, soaking up the warm rays.

Ezra’s a lawyer now, working in a firm dealing with criminal law…mostly child abuse cases. He’s seen a lot there, I know just by looking in his eyes, but he knows the work he’s doing is important. I think he’s still trying to punish his mother for leaving him. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he started a firm on his own one-day, dealing with children and their rights. He’d be good at it…no…great.

They’re all coming home for Thanksgiving this year…all of them. And I’m so glad they are. The house is so empty without the sounds of feet stomping up the stairs, their sneakers squeaking on my freshly mopped linoleum floors, doors slamming shut, shouts and screams coming from every corner in the room, or even the simple sounds of food being opened and eaten. I love my boys. Orin and I raised them well, with the help of that old lady mare.

She’s dead now. I can see her grave from the chair I’m sitting in that overlooks the pasture.

I knew something was wrong when I saw her that morning a week and a half ago. Her head hung low and her ears lay flat. Her eyes were sadder than the day was long. The spring in her step was gone, and her simple desire to continue living seemed quenched. Harpo sat on the fence looking at her, knowing something wasn’t quite right. I called the vet immediately, but nothing could come of it.

It was her time.

I gave her one last rub down, covered her in blankets…I didn’t want her to get cold. Harpo stood with me the whole time. I kept telling her it was okay to go…but she didn’t want to. I think she wanted to wait for the boys to come home one last time.

She didn’t make it.

She died at ten thirty eight that night. She was thirty years old. 

I had cried like a baby and Orin sat beside me, comforting me. To most she was just a horse, an animal that simply served her purpose, but to us she was family. She helped us raise our boys into men, she stood by them, comforted them, and she helped me break down those walls that they had built up before coming to our home.

Orin had one of the neighbors come down with the backhoe and he was kind enough to dig a place for her. I had called Ezra first, and though he seemed fine on the phone, I received a bouquet of flowers and a loving note. Mother, I’ll be home soon. You’re loving son, Ezra. He’d never called me mother before: I was always Evie. I nearly broke down right then and there.

 Harpo slept on that grave for four days, he didn’t eat, or hunt. I even took him out some food, but he just stayed there, mourning the loss of his friend. I haven’t seen him since.

I hope he comes back…but I doubt it.

As I think back through the years I see how much that mousy mare helped me raise all the boys. She never complained, acted up, or misbehaved in any way. Oh, she taught them how to respect animals, but she was never mean. She taught them humility, responsibility, and most importantly, how to love. And for most of those boys, love was the hardest feeling to accept or express. We’ll never own another horse named Mouse, it just wouldn’t seem right.  

The boys will be home soon and I know they’ll sit around and talk about the good times with Mouse, more for my sake than theirs. They’re adults now, with their own lives, but I know they’ll mourn her in their own way. Ezra will take it the hardest, and more than likely he’ll go out early Thanksgiving morning and have a cup of coffee at her grave. He won’t say anything, he’ll just remember a time in his life when he’d needed her most and she’d been there.

I hear a car door slam shut and I move out onto the porch. I wipe the tears from my cheeks as Ezra, with Harpo in his arms, comes up to the steps. The last child to arrive on Orin and my doorstep would be the first to come home.

“He was in her feeder,” he said softly, petting that old cat’s head.

I should have known Harpo would be there…waiting for Ezra to find him.

“How about some cocoa?” he asks.

I nod my head, allowing the tears to run down my cheeks: “Welcome home.”

The End