"Sam! You're my last chance. If you can't help me, I'll have to sell Banner!"
When I got to school this morning, that's what I heard from Tabby. Her name is Tabitha Sanford, but she goes by Tabby. We're not close, but I see her at school and in some horse events. She and her mom ride their twin rose-gray Arabians -- Banner and Beauty -- in matched pair parade competitions all over the West. They've won tons of trophies and some cash prizes, so, at first, I thought Tabby was joking.
Then I saw Tabby was biting her lip hard, and trying not to cry.
"Banner won't go anyplace without Beauty," Tabby said. Then, she followed me all the way to my locker.
"Well, they're twins, right?" I asked her. "And they've always been together, so it makes sense he might get a little fussy."
"Fussy?" Tabby said. "That's like saying King Kong is a pretty big monkey!"
I've seen Banner and Beauty float along a parade route, moving their polished hooves over the asphalt like they were striding on silk, but Tabby said she'd show me Banner's dark side.
We arranged for me to get off at her bus stop and I sat around on the Sanfords' front porch, waiting for Tabby to tell her mom what was up.
"Don't forget your helmet," Mrs. Sandford shouted over her shoulder as she left the house.
Tabby was mad at her mom for threatening to sell Banner, and that made me a little edgy, too.
"I suppose Tabby told you I'm not going to put up with Banner's craziness much longer," Mrs. Sandford said, "and you probably think that's pretty mean."
It did, but I was willing to wait until I saw Banner act up, so I just shrugged.
"I've been busy at work, and busy around the ranch, and I don't have time to ride Beauty as much as I should, so Tabby's been exercising -- trying to, at least -- each horse individually."
Mrs. Sandford sighed and then went into the stable to retrieve Banner's tack while I stayed on the front porch, still waiting for Tabby.
Banner side-passed like a dressage horse, staying next to Beauty. They're both pink, with charcoal-colored manes, tails and soft gray shading on the knees and heels. Compared to Ace and Popcorn and most of our other horses, they look sweet and delicate.
But, I've heard appearances can fool ya, and this time, boy was that right.
Banner didn't give Mrs. Sandford too much trouble when she brought him outside the corral. As long as he could face Beauty while she saddled and bridled him, he just breathed a little hard. When Tabby led him away to her mounting step, Banner kept looking over his shoulder and then the other. His charcoal forelock whipped around as he figured out that Beauty wasn't going with him.
Mrs. Sandford check the fastener of Tabby's helmet for herself, then took in a deep breath. I didn't hear her let it go, even when Tabby said, "Mom, I've never fallen off Banner. He's not that much of a brat."
Tabby was joking, a little, but her mother crossed her arms and said, "It's not falling off that I'm worried about."
So far, I couldn't see anything that Tabby or her mom was doing wrong. Tabby was gentle and centered in the saddle and, I'm no expert, but I can see when a horse is afraid of his humans. Whatever Banner was scared of, it wasn't Tabby.
Banner's nostrils and eyes widened and he took hard, tiny steps as Tabby rode him toward a big grassy field. He didn't want to refuse, but he didn't want to move away from Beauty.
I walked along with them to open the gate. Banner didn't care a bit that I was there, but he wouldn't look at me. He didn't even flick his eyes my way when I sweet-talked him. Instead, he nickered, whinnied and then neighed so loud my ears rang.
Banner hadn't even started his workout, but his silver-pink hide radiated heat, and shivered like a thousand flies were crawling all over him. He passed through the gate just fine, but his big brown eyes looked full of dread.
He made one more swing of his neck, stretching it longer than I thought possible, and exploded.
He lunged right. Tabby tightened her reins.
Banner threw himself left. Tabby kept her reins short and sat deeper in her saddle.
Then, Banner ducked his head and curved his entire body like a drawn bow. He was graceful and elegant doing it, but Banner bucked like a rodeo horse for three high hops, and then he gathered all four hooves together, and then threw them into a full out gallop, straight at the fence.
It was almost like I was in Tabby's mind. Should she tighten her reins even more? Should she turn Banner in circles? Should she let the Arab take the fence? Because that's exactly what he looked like he was going to do -- jump!
As if Banner had brakes and Tabby had slammed them on, the gelding's black tail slapped the ground and he slid to a stop inches short of the fence.
As soon as I caught my breath, I shouted, "Tabby, can you stay there?"
She nodded. I asked Mrs. Sandford where they kept the grain. I ran, scooped some into a clean bucket and ran back to the pasture.
Tabby had dismounted. She talked to Banner as she stood next to him, but his ears were backswept. He didn't want to hear her sweet talk, either.
"You don't look very scared," I said, looking at her sideways as I held the grain under Banner's nose.
"I was the first time. Yeah, wasn't I Banner? Huh, good boy? But the first time we were way out on the range, so I had every right to be worried."
Banner tossed his head up, away from the bucket.
"Aren't you sort of rewarding him bad behavior?" Tabby asked.
"I was just thinking that if we make it pleasant for him to be away from Beauty. . ."
"We'll keep him faced away from her, right?" Tabby asked.
"If we can," I said.
For a minute, I thought the cereal-sweet smell of the grain was working. And something in the way Banner rolled his eyes toward Tabby, and then me before giving the grain one sniff, made me think he wanted it to settle his nerves, too.
But just as his chin whiskers touched the bucket, he startled back. I didn't hear or see anything and by the way Tabby glanced at me, she didn't either, but Banner straightened all for legs and then he starting hopping again, this time at the end of his reins.
By the time Gram came to pick me up, we still hadn't figured out what was wrong with Banner. We did persuade Mrs. Sandford to give us a couple weeks before she gave up on Banner and sold the two horses as a matched set that could not be broken up, no matter what.
I'm going back to Tabby's house on Saturday, so that we can spend the whole day working with Banner. In the meantime, I'm going to talk to Jake, Dad, Brynna, Dallas and anyone else I can of, and then I'll do my best at thinking like a horse.
End of Part I
This is a rose gray Arabian foal.