Two Years Later, February 2009
Mandy Pajeck sat by her brother, Luke, on their battered tweed sofa and balled her hands into fists. She had to talk to him again. She’d been stalling for days because she knew, and dreaded, how he’d react. But she had no choice. His future was at stake.
Pulling in a breath, she surveyed his face, biting her lip as she searched his sightless gaze. Right now, he was focused on music blasting through headphones that pushed his chestnut hair into a rooster tail. His backbone slumped against the worn cushions. His long, slender fingers tapped his knees in time with the rhythm.
Sunlight slanted into the living room through the wood-framed windows, illuminating the scars on his handsome face and emphasizing the opacity of his hazel eyes, once so very like her own. At his feet, candy wrappers peppered the burnt-orange carpet. Mandy kept a wastebasket at his end of the couch, but he still tossed the papers on the floor. She didn’t know if he found it difficult to locate the basket or if he was just thoughtless. For her, it was a minor irritation, so she’d never taken him to task for it. She’d learned over the years to choose her battles.
“Luke?” When he didn’t acknowledge her, she touched his arm. “Can we talk?”
He jumped with a start. Then, brows snapping together, he jerked off the headphones. “Dang it, Mands, give me some warning. You scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m sorry. With the music so loud, you couldn’t hear me.”
“Next time, jiggle the cushion or something to let me know you’re there.”
“I’ll do that,” Mandy assured him. “I just didn’t think.”
Luke nodded, and his scowl melted into a reluctant grin. “No big. My heart has started beating again. So, what’s up?”
Mandy moistened her lips. “It’s just—we need to talk.”
The stony look that settled over his face told her he knew what the topic would be. “We’ve had a great day so far, and you’re not going to change my mind, so just drop it.”
Mandy wished she could. It would be lovely to float along, pretending all was well, but experience had taught her that giving in to Luke was a mistake and not what was best for him. “Can’t we talk like two adults? You’re nineteen, not a little boy anymore.”
“That’s right, nineteen, old enough to make my own decisions. Just let it go.”
“Sweeping problems under the rug doesn’t make them go away.” She kept her tone nonaccusatory. “It’s February. You passed the tests and got your high school diploma last June.”
“And all I’ve done since then is take up space. I’ve got that part of the speech memorized, okay? You can skip the demoralizing details and get right to the point.”
Mandy lifted her hands. “You’ve got no life! That’s the point. All you do is sit in this house! I love you. How am I supposed to deal with that?”
“The same way I do, by accepting it.” His voice rose in anger. “What do you want from me? It’s not as if I can go out and get a job!”
Why can’t you? she yearned to ask. Luke’s counselors said there was no reason her brother couldn’t do everything other blind people did. Unfortunately, as a child, Luke had refused to use a cane and resisted rehabilitation, and when Mandy was awarded custody of him seven years ago, he’d insisted on being homeschooled, an option in Oregon that allowed kids to get a high school diploma through the local education service district. Mandy had gotten Luke textbooks on tape that had been supplied by the state, appropriated everything she could find for him in Braille, and had hired tutors she couldn’t afford when her workload interfered with Luke’s lessons. Luke had excelled academically, but the seclusion had left him socially inept.
Mandy knew her brother’s negative attitude and helplessness were mostly her fault. She’d been barely thirteen when their mother had left their dad and abandoned them. Their father should have hired household help to look after his four-year-old son. But although Tobin Pajeck had been wealthy, he’d also been a tightwad. He’d found a cheap day-care facility near where they lived, and every day after school, it had fallen to Mandy to walk Luke home, care for him, clean the house, prepare a gourmet supper, tidy the kitchen, do laundry and ironing, find time for her homework, and put Luke to bed.
Traumatized by the loss of his mother, Luke had clung to his sister for reassurance, and Mandy, who’d felt lost herself, hadn’t discouraged him. Luke’s neediness had worsened; it had grown more pronounced at age six, when he lost his sight.
A burning sensation washed over Mandy’s eyes as she recalled that time in their lives. She’d tried so hard, ached to make everything right for him, and still she had made every mistake in the book, doing things for him, giving in when he threw tantrums, and never correcting his behavior. For the next two years, what Luke wanted, he got. Even after Mandy had their father thrown in jail for beating her up, and she and Luke became wards of the court, Mandy had run interference for her brother, trying to placate their foster parents when Luke misbehaved, making excuses for him so he wouldn’t be punished, and enduring frequent moves into different homes without complaint because she’d been afraid their caseworker might separate them. When Mandy had been emancipated at age eighteen, she’d been frantic about leaving Luke behind in foster care and had petitioned for custody. The judge had turned her down until she turned twenty-one, saying he couldn’t give a girl her age that much responsibility.
For the next three years after Mandy left foster care, she and Luke had been apart except for weekly visitations. In a perfect world, the lengthy separation would have forced Luke to become more independent. Instead he’d thrown tantrums at home and at his special school, broken things, and had even struck one of his foster mothers. Only his blindness had saved him from being transferred into a juvenile correctional facility. By the time Mandy could finally assume responsibility for her brother, he’d become nearly impossible to handle.
Mandy would never truly know why she hadn’t insisted that Luke straighten up, but she felt pretty certain guilt played a major part. Luke was blind and she was responsible, a circumstance he reminded her of whenever she confronted him. She’d slipped right back into the same old patterns, protecting and spoiling him. If only she could turn back the clock, but life didn’t come with a rewind button. Why had she given in so easily? Had she been that weak-willed and spineless? Or had it been more a case of bad judgment? She knew only that she’d been sorely ill equipped to deal with a needy, disabled teenager, and now both she and her brother were paying the price.
She pressed a fingertip to her throbbing temple. “I don’t expect you to get a job right now, Luke. You need some kind of training first.”
“Here it comes,” he muttered. “The college pitch again.”
“You need an education.”
“Why? I’m happy the way things are.” He switched off the CD player. “Besides, what would I study to become? It takes no training to sell pencils on a street corner.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Blind people aren’t reduced to that unless they choose to be.”
“Are you saying I choose to be helpless and live in limbo?”
She wasn’t touching that observation with a ten-foot pole. “I’m saying you can have a wonderful, productive life if only you put forth some effort. There are people at the college to help you pick a major. They’d give you aptitude tests to see what you’re good at. You could find something that you really love to do.”
“And how would I make my way around the campus?”
“You were taught how to navigate with the cane. Your failure to use it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of it. It’s in the closet. You could start practicing with it here.”
“No way! I might fall. I could get hurt again.”
Mandy gritted her teeth in frustration. He’d tripped and sprained an ankle years ago, and ever since he’d wielded the incident like a club whenever the cane was mentioned. Now Luke wouldn’t even move from one room to the next without her help, and he refused to go outdoors alone. One sunny day when Mandy had insisted that he walk around the backyard, using the fence to guide himself, he’d tripped over a shrub and banged his head on a rock. For an instant, Mandy had wondered if he’d fallen on purpose, but she’d quickly pushed the suspicion from her mind. Who would injure himself that badly to make a point? The cut on his scalp had required nine stitches.
“If you use the cane properly, it’s very unlikely that you’ll fall, Luke. If you’d only practice with it every day, you could be running footraces around here in nothing flat.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not blind. You forget to push the chairs back under the table. You kick off your shoes and leave them on the floor. Sometimes you don’t put the vacuum attachments back in the closet. The whole place is booby-trapped.”
“I don’t worry about keeping the traffic paths clear because you never move around the house without help!” Mandy cried. “If you start practicing with the cane, I’ll make sure there’s never anything left out to trip you.”
Luke snorted in derision. “Even if I could use a cane inside the house, finding my way around a campus would be a whole different story. Get real, why don’t you?”
“I admit that it might be challenging for you the first few days. Maybe I could attend your classes with you for a while. I’m sure I can get special permission to do that.”
“And have everybody think I’m a big baby who needs his sister to hold his hand?”
In truth, Luke was a big baby—a spoiled, demanding young man who was frozen in place—and, God help her, she didn’t know how to help him reverse that.
“Sometimes,” she said carefully, “the things we fear turn out to be no big deal once we force ourselves to face them.”
“You’re really into pontificating today, aren’t you? We should rent you a soapbox.”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Mandy counted to ten and then replied, “Any young man who knows the word ‘pontificate’ has the brains to do something worthwhile with his life. All you need are some solutions. I know you get upset when I bring it up, but maybe a guide dog is the answer. We could get you on a waiting list and—”
“No! We’ve been over this a hundred times. I’m terrified of dogs.”
As a child, Luke had been badly bitten by the family Doberman, and a fear of canines had bedeviled him ever since. “Guide dogs aren’t your average, run-of-the-mill animal. They’re well trained and trustworthy. Why not at least give it a try?”
“End of subject!” He flipped on the CD player, clearly intending to block her out again. “Not one more word.” He pushed the headphone cups firmly over his ears. “Get off my back and leave me alone.”
Mandy shot up and grabbed the headset, feeling a stab of satisfaction at her brother’s startled expression. He flailed for the headset but she jerked it out of reach. Frustration and fear for Luke’s future churned inside her, and she spoke louder than she intended. “What if something happens to me? You have no one else. Mama had no family. Dad’s in prison. His rich, snobby parents hung up on me the one time I called them for help. Name one other person you can count on besides me!”
Luke parted his lips but then sank back against the cushions without speaking.
“I’m it, Luke! What if I get hit by a bus or die of cancer? Who’ll take care of you? Our grandparents don’t give a damn about us. You need to get your head on straight and start acting like an adult instead of a spoiled brat!”
“You haven’t seen brat yet, and you aren’t going to die. You’re only nine years older than me. Don’t be melodramatic, and give me back my headset.”
“I’m not finished! Just because I’m only twenty-eight is no guarantee I’ll be around forever. It’s not just about a job. It’s about your being able to do simple things, like make a sandwich! If something happens to me, what will you do, sit here and starve?”
Luke groped for the headset. “Stop it,” she grated. “Will you please listen to me?”
“All I hear is white noise.” He made a lucky grab and wrested the headphones away from her. “Leave me alone, I said.”
Mandy trembled so violently her legs almost buckled. Luke put the headphones back on and turned up the volume so far she feared the mirror behind the sofa might crack. “If you don’t stop that, you’ll end up deaf!” she yelled, but Luke couldn’t hear her. His closed eyes, crossed arms, and hunched shoulders signaled total shutout.
Scalding tears pooled in Mandy’s eyes. From dawn until well after midnight, she devoted nearly every minute of her day to Luke—helping him shave and dress, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning, and then working long hours as a medical transcriptionist in the tiny bedroom she’d converted into an office. And this was the gratitude she got?
Whirling away, she cut through the dining room to the adjoining kitchen. When she reached the chipped sink, she curled her fingers over the edge of the counter and stared out the window at the huge backyard, which was fenced and perfect for a dog. Her brother was such a blockhead. She hated to see him wasting his life this way.
Her knuckles throbbed from the force of her grip on the Formica, the ache in her temples had shifted behind her eyes, and her chest felt as if it might explode. Take deep breaths. Don’t let him get to you. It was easier said than done.
Mandy blinked and took in the view of the yard, which always calmed and soothed her. One of her passions was gardening, and seeing the tidy flower beds under a thick crust of snow filled her with a sense of accomplishment. The peony she’d planted last spring was trimmed close to the ground now. She hoped it would snuggle under the icy white and push up fresh green shoots again next summer.
Central Oregon was experiencing a cold snap, the temperatures so low that the air sparkled. Condensation blurred the window glass. Her gaze shifted to the tiny pots on the windowsill. Hopefully the cold seeping through the pane wouldn’t stunt the growth of her starts: marigolds, pansies, baby’s breath, pink carnations, and chrysanthemums. She wanted them to be large and ready to bloom by June, when it would be safe to transplant them into the flower beds and patio planters. It was her dream to get a degree in horticulture and one day own a plant nursery, but for now all she could do was pore over gardening books and pretend she was an expert, yet another frustration in her life.
Before long, it would be Valentine’s Day. With a fingertip, she drew a heart in the moisture on the glass, wishing the holiday were today. She could make fudge and applesauce bread. The smell of loaves hot from the oven made her feel festive.
My fault. She always came back to that after a quarrel with her brother. It didn’t ease her conscience to remember that she’d been a child herself when she’d been raising Luke and only twenty-one when she’d finally gotten custody. Her brother had been her responsibility, and she’d made countless mistakes, end of story. Now he was a mess, and unless she could get through to him, he would remain a mess.
She wouldn’t think about it now. She needed to focus instead on salvaging the rest of the evening. She had no applesauce for bread, but chocolate-chip cookies would fill the house with lovely smells. Even better, Luke would be forced to call a truce if he wanted some. Not that he’d give in that easily. Unlike her, he was a brilliant strategist when it came to cold war.
Each evening before dinner, Mandy treated herself to an hour of television, her program of choice the local five-o’clock news. She wouldn’t forgo that today because Luke was in a snit. She made a cup of hot chocolate dotted with marshmallows, filled a dessert plate with cookies, and went to the living room. After lowering the blinds, she snuggled under a throw at her end of the couch. Holding the mug close to her chin, she breathed in the sweet scent, enjoying that almost as much as the drink itself. It gave her a wicked satisfaction to bite into one of the cookies when she knew Luke smelled them. Well, he could either politely ask for some or do without.
Grabbing the remote, she turned on the TV. Luke’s sulky expression told her he was still pouting. Tough. This was her only downtime, and she would not let him ruin it. A talk show was ending, and the drone of voices soothed her. She waited through several commercials for the news to come on. She didn’t care that much about what was happening in her hometown of Crystal Falls. It was the ritual she needed. Vegetating for an hour restored her energy before she started dinner.
Sometimes Luke listened to the news, but today he was bent on maintaining the frigid silence. Good. Attending college was important, and the longer he stewed about it, the better her chance of impressing that upon him. As if he read her mind, Luke wadded a candy wrapper and sent it flying with a flick of his finger. Mandy knew he did it to tick her off. Well, for all she cared, he could throw papers as far as the dining room. She’d just vacuum them up in the morning like she always did.
Another wrapper went flying. This one struck the television, which she knew was accidental. Luke couldn’t see to take aim. She tapped a toe on the cushion. He was such an ingrate sometimes. As if she didn’t have enough work to do?
“I have to use the toilet,” he informed her.
Luke had perfect timing; she’d give him that. The news was starting. She hit the record button. No matter what, she would enjoy her hour of TV. If he played the interruption game, he’d get a late dinner. She wasn’t hungry yet because she’d eaten cookies. Luke, on the other hand, couldn’t even heat up a can of soup to tide him over.
Having that thought made Mandy feel terrible. She had no idea what it was like to be blind. It was wrong for her to have so little sympathy. Still, it was absurd that she had to guide him through this small house to the bathroom.
While Luke went inside to do his business, Mandy remained near the closed door, waiting to lead him back to the sofa. Seconds later when Luke emerged, he said, “I think I missed the bowl when I peed.”
His faint smirk announced that he’d done it on purpose. Fine. She’d have to clean it up, making dinner even later. Saying nothing, she led him back to the living room, got him situated on the couch, and then went to get rags and disinfectant.
It was twenty after five before she could sit down again. Luke scowled, but she ignored him. He put his headphones back on and cranked up the volume until the sound reached her. She responded by turning up the television.
Setting thoughts of Luke aside, Mandy focused on the screen to see a cowboy leading a tiny palomino horse along a sidewalk in downtown Crystal Falls, only a half mile from her house. He didn’t seem thrilled to be caught on camera, but when he tipped his black Stetson low over his eyes and quickened his pace, the news team hurried to keep up. The animal wore a harness with a handle that lifted over its back and a looped leash attached just below the chin. Interest piqued, Mandy curled both hands around the now cold mug and shifted to get more comfortable.
A slender blonde wearing an expensive-looking gray trench coat announced, “This is Zach Harrigan, a renowned local quarter horse trainer.”
Mandy recognized the name. The Harrigans were well-known, not only in Crystal Falls but all across the nation, for breeding and training world-class cutting champions.
“Mr. Harrigan has been spotted here on Main with this tiny horse at about the same time each afternoon for nearly a week,” the reporter continued. “That sparked our interest, so we did some investigating. To our delight, we’ve discovered that he has recently embarked upon an incredible journey: training a guide horse for the blind.”
Guide horse? Mandy jerked upright. Shooting a glance at her brother, she snatched the remote, thumbed down the volume, and leaned closer to the set.
“Recently is right.” The cowboy, clearly annoyed, just kept walking. “Rosebud’s in the early training stages, not yet ready to be in the public eye. Why not wait until she’s trained to feature her on the news? The future of guide horses is on the line.”
The blonde scurried to keep pace. “Can you tell us about the training process?”
Harrigan tugged his hat lower and declined to comment. The reporter stepped in front of him, leaving him no choice but to halt or cannon into her on-camera.
“Please, Mr. Harrigan. Surely you understand what a novelty this is. People have seen you working with Rosebud. We’re curious, not here to catch her making a mistake. We merely hope to educate the public about these wonderful horses, the assistance they offer sight-impaired individuals, and the fact that the Department of Justice and the ADA might ban them as service animals.” The reporter smiled into the camera. “For viewers who don’t know, ADA is an acronym for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Department of Justice is the agency that deals with enforcing it.”
“You’ve done your homework,” Harrigan observed.
“Yes, and by running this footage, we may inspire the public to begin writing letters in support of guide horses to the ADA and the Department of Justice.”
Tension easing from his shoulders, the cowboy turned toward the camera. Though the brim of his hat shadowed the upper planes of his face, Mandy could see that he had jet-black hair, a sun-burnished complexion, a strong jaw, and a firm but mobile mouth. From his broad shoulders down, he was pure cowboy, trim but well muscled, dressed simply in a blue work shirt, faded jeans, and dusty riding boots. He wore no jacket. Maybe, Mandy decided, working outside so much had made him immune to the cold.
He settled a hand on the little horse’s head. “Letters of support for mini guide horses would be much appreciated.”
“How many blind people have guide horses?” the reporter asked.
“At present, only a few, but those who do are undoubtedly worried about losing them.”
The blonde frowned. “What happens to the minis if their owners can’t keep them?”
Harrigan shrugged. “It may be difficult to find good homes for them. Minis are cute, and some people might be willing to adopt one, not comprehending the responsibility they’d be assuming. After the new wears off, the animal often ends up being neglected. Visit some mini-horse rescue sites online. You’ll find lots of horror stories.”
“Do you believe guide horses might be banned?” the woman asked.
“It’s possible.” Harrigan looked dead into the camera. “Apparently, when horses were added to the list of service animals, there were no training standards or enforced size restrictions. Note that I emphasize the word enforced. If restrictions are in place, some people ignore them, and nothing is being done to stop that. That jeopardizes the status of true mini horses as service animals and may even call into question the legitimacy of other assistance animals.”
The newswoman pressed the mike closer to Harrigan’s face. “Examples?”
“I’m not qualified to make judgments on specific incidents. Check them out online.” He flashed a crooked grin that warmed Mandy’s skin. He had dark brown eyes that could melt ice. “I’m just here to train a tiny horse, not take on Washington, D.C. I do hope the agencies involved don’t impose a blanket ruling against all horses because a handful of people have abused the situation. It would be a huge step in the wrong direction, because mini horses—true minis—can be fabulous assistance animals.” He patted the mini’s head. “My focus is to train Rosebud to be a bulletproof guide animal. I’ll leave the controversy to others.”
“If others wish to write letters to the appropriate agencies, is there any advice you might give them?” the newswoman pressed.
Harrigan frowned. “Know the facts and be aware of any abuses of the law. Knowledge is power.”
The reporter tipped her head in question. “Despite the controversy, have any prospective buyers been in contact with you about Rosebud yet?”
“Quite a few,” Harrigan replied. “I’ve been in touch with two guide horse trainers, and word travels fast. Judging by all the interest, I’m confident Rosebud will have a prospective home long before her training is over.”
Mandy tore her eyes from the screen to flash a glance at Luke. He was still absorbed in his music. For once, she was grateful.
“Do you know what the status of guide horses is right now?” the blonde asked.
“For now, the ADA regulations state that any animal trained to mitigate a disability is recognized as a service animal, so horses are still sanctioned to go anywhere people go.” The cowboy gestured with a jerk of his hand. “Let’s just hope any amendments to the current status are imposed judiciously by fair-minded individuals.”
Mandy wriggled to the edge of the cushion to get closer to the screen. The reporter switched the mike from her right hand to her left. “You’ve taken on a big challenge. How did you prepare yourself to train Rosebud, Mr. Harrigan?”
“I’ve been training horses most of my life. I also worked for two years with a guide dog trainer to learn what blind people need a service animal to do.”
The reporter settled a solemn gaze on the mini. “It appears you’re doing a marvelous job. I saw Rosebud lead you around a planter and signal you to step up at a curb. Watching her is fascinating. She seems as accomplished as any guide dog. What else must she learn?”
“Heaps of things.” Harrigan’s mouth tipped into a halfhearted grin. “A good guide horse has to be prepared to work in any environment—busy city sidewalks, crowded airports, fancy restaurants, transit buses, and so on. She has a long way to go.”
“Crystal Falls is a midsize town. Will you take her to a large city for more sidewalk and street training?”
“Yes. To prepare her for that, the present challenge is teaching her how to deal with stairs. She must be able to board a transit bus or climb the portable stairs into a small aircraft parked on the tarmac. Once in a large city, we’ll visit museums, courthouses, and other places with a lot of steps. We’re working toward that at home. Stairs intimidate her.”
“Will you be able to teach her how to do it?”
“We’ll get there. She’s very smart and catches on pretty fast.”
The reporter nodded. “What inspired you to do this? You’re already renowned as a quarter horse trainer. A lot of the Crystal Falls tourist trade comes from people who visit your ranch to buy or breed horses. Can you tell us what led you to purchase Rosebud and embark on this journey?”
“I’ve done well with cutting horses, but there’s more to life than making money. I wanted to do something more, something that would make a real difference. When I found out about guide horses, I knew I wanted to try my hand at training one. It hasn’t been easy to reach this point, but I was determined two years ago, and I still am today.”
The reporter glanced down at a black notebook in her hand. “With guide dogs already in use, why is it necessary for horses to be trained to perform the same job?”
“Not all blind people are candidates for a guide dog. Some are allergic to canine dander. Others are prohibited because of religious beliefs. Mini horses are a great alternative. A dog has an average life span of twelve years. A horse can live to be thirty and sometimes even forty, which means they can be of service much longer.”
“Was it difficult to find Rosebud?” the reporter asked.
“It was. There are several things to look for in a guide horse—size, temperament, intelligence, good conformation, and health. Rosebud was perfect on every count. For a time, she performed in a circus. Then she went on to become a champion many times over in halter performance and other Division A classes. She’s accustomed to large crowds and a lot of noise, yet she’s only three, with plenty of years ahead of her.”
The camera lens widened to show the newswoman grinning broadly as she leaned forward to pet the animal. Harrigan blocked her reach. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but no contact is allowed. Rosebud is very affectionate and enjoys the attention of strangers a little too much. When we’re working, she needs to stay focused on her job.”
“I see.” The reporter withdrew her hand. “She’s darling!”
Mandy had to agree. With a stocky golden body and fluffy white mane and tail, the mini was one of the cutest creatures she had ever seen. Rosebud’s cowboy sidekick wasn’t half-bad, either. He had a deep, rich voice and an easy grin. Even on-screen, he exuded strength and had an air about him that commanded respect.
Glad that Luke couldn’t hear, Mandy settled in to watch as the news team followed Harrigan to Gliddon’s Pharmacy. As man and horse approached the entrance, Harrigan said, “Hold the mike close.” Then, to the mini, he said, “Find the door, Rosebud.”
The instant Rosebud pressed her nose against the portal, Mandy heard a clicking sound. Harrigan held up a gadget for the camera, then gave the mini a treat from a pouch on his belt. “Good job, Rosebud,” he said softly. “Find the doorknob.”
Rosebud touched the lever, was clicked and rewarded, and then Harrigan opened the door. Mandy smiled as she watched the man and tiny horse enter the drugstore. Inside, a handful of shoppers did double takes. So did Mr. Gliddon. He came from behind the counter, adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses, and gaped. Any comment he made was drowned out by a cluster of customers.
“I thought it was a dog!” a woman cried.
“I’ll be damned—a tiny horse,” a man said.
As people pushed forward to pet Rosebud, Harrigan once again went through his spiel about no contact with strangers being allowed. When all the curious onlookers had backed a respectful distance away, he said, “Find the checkout counter, Rosebud.”
The horse came to a stop, clearly bewildered. Harrigan unfastened a short wand from his belt. A yellow tennis ball was attached to its end. He held the ball in front of Rosebud’s nose and repeated, “Find the checkout counter.” When the horse bumped the ball with her nose, he clicked and gave her another treat. Then, repeating the command, he inched the ball forward, leading the mini behind it. When, under careful direction and verbal cuing, the horse finally touched her nose to the edge of the checkout counter, Harrigan once again clicked and rewarded her.
“What’s that noise you’re making?” someone asked.
“It’s made with this.” Harrigan again displayed the small device. “It’s used in clicker training, affording a handler the ability to give instant reinforcement for a desired behavior. I also give verbal praise, but it’s not as immediate. With the clicker, I’m able to reinforce Rosebud at the exact instant I need to. She knows that she found what I wanted her to find. If I had said, ‘Good girl,’ she could have been focused on something else by the time I got the words out, and that might have confused her. When I ask her to find the checkout counter, I don’t want her to lead me to a candy rack.”
Rosebud heard the magic words, find the checkout counter, and nudged its edge again. A burst of laughter ensued. Harrigan clicked and gave the horse a treat. “A nice thing about the reward system is that Rosebud is an eager participant in her training.”
Someone in the crowd asked, “What’s that ball on the stick for?”
“This is Rosebud’s target,” Harrigan explained. “It can be anything, even one’s hand. The target is an important training tool. In the early stages, I got Rosebud to touch the ball with her nose. Even if she touched it accidentally, I’d click and give her a treat. She quickly learned that touching the ball got her a goody, and she began nudging it deliberately. When I’m training her to find something new, I can lead her toward it with her target. When she touched the counter, she got clicked and treated. Soon, she’ll find the checkout counter without any cues from me.”
When Rosebud heard her handler say “find the checkout counter,” she nuzzled its edge again, prompting more laughter. Harrigan clicked and gave the mini a treat. “I was a little slow on the uptake that time,” he said with a chuckle.
“I think she’s got it down already!” someone said.
Zach Harrigan flashed a grin that made Mandy’s stomach feel as if it flipped and fluttered. Determinedly she returned her gaze to Rosebud. “She’s not bulletproof yet,” he said. “We’ll have to practice again and again before she’ll find the checkout counter without fail every single time. To an onlooker, it may appear that she’s already trained, but there are dozens of things she hasn’t learned yet. She barely has the basics down pat.”
Harrigan glanced directly at the camera. Mandy got butterflies again. His brown eyes twinkled with warmth, yet had a sharp, perceptive edge that made her feel as if he were looking directly at her.
Mandy noticed that the little horse had started to prance a bit, her tiny hooves making a tat-a-tat sound on the floor. At just that moment, Rosebud lifted her tail. Mandy watched in startled horror as the mini emptied her bowels on the pharmacy floor. The pile looked runny, as if the animal had loose stool, and as the camera zoomed in on it, Mandy could almost imagine the stench. Mr. Gliddon retreated precipitately.
Someone cried, “Oh, my God!” The female reporter wrinkled her nose and stepped back. Zach Harrigan glanced down and said, “Oh, shit.” At least, Mandy felt fairly certain that was what he said. Over the air, the second word was bleeped out.
Shoppers left the pharmacy rather quickly. Only the news team and proprietor remained. Mr. Gliddon produced a roll of paper towels and a plastic bag. Harrigan apologized profusely as he cleaned up the mess. “This is totally unprecedented. She’s completely housebroken and never does this. I heard her prancing. That’s how she signals when she has to go. But she waits until we find a place that’s appropriate.”
“I saw a mini online that had a potty bag attached to her halter somehow,” the female reporter observed. “Could Rosebud wear something to prevent accidents?”
“She doesn’t have accidents, and it’s called a relieving bag. It’s attached to a relieving harness, a belt just behind the working harness. A handler can take the horse to a Dumpster, attach the bag, tell the horse to go, and then the mess is simple for a blind person to clean up.”
“Do you think she might be sick?” the reporter asked.
“It’s possible.” Harrigan’s jaw muscle bunched. “She wouldn’t do this if something wasn’t wrong.” He knotted the plastic bag, and Mr. Gliddon disposed of it. Harrigan scratched behind the mini’s ears. “This is why I didn’t want her on camera yet. Now people may think all minis have accidents in public places, and that is absolutely, unequivocally not true.”
The newswoman’s expression went taut with concern. “I’ve researched these horses online, and I can back you up on that. They’re wonderful little animals.”
After the pharmacy debacle, Harrigan and the mini left the establishment and approached a silver SUV. Harrigan opened the rear passenger door and Rosebud loaded into the vehicle without hesitation. After lowering the car windows to give the mini fresh air, the rancher remained on the sidewalk for a few minutes to answer questions. Mandy was disappointed when the news segment ended.
A guide horse. Glancing at Luke, who was still lost in his music, Mandy set aside her chocolate drink and pushed to her feet. Hurrying to the kitchen, she grabbed the phone book. When she located the Hs, she was disappointed to find no Zach Harrigan listed. She had to get in touch with him. Other people had already contacted him, wanting to buy Rosebud. Until a few minutes ago, Mandy hadn’t known guide horses existed, but now she believed an animal like that might be the answer for her brother. She couldn’t let someone else beat her to the draw. She’d figure out how to pay for Rosebud later. Somehow.
There was no listing in the Yellow Pages for quarter horses. Next she looked under “Horses.” She found several boarders, breeders, and trainers, most of their names displayed as subheadings under different ranches or stables. Her finger stopped on the Crooked H. Under the ranch’s name in small, bold italics were the words, Champion Quarter Horses, Training and Behavioral Correction. Zachary Harrigan, Proprietor.
Mandy jotted down the number and address, then glanced toward the living room. She couldn’t handle another argument with Luke today. She’d wait until she got him down for the night before she called to see about getting a sitter to stay with him while she went out for a while this evening. A hesitant smile touched her mouth. Her brother didn’t know it yet, but maybe he’d finally gotten his wish. With a little luck, she might never have to discuss the guide dog issue with him again.