Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

The rain came down in sheets as Penny turned onto the long gravel drive she shared with a neighboring horse farm. After two months away from her Virginia home while she cared for her dying mother in Florida, the sprawling green pasture was a welcome sight. As she made her way up the drive, a group of horses came into view.

That's odd, she thought. What are they doing outside in such a terrible storm? Slowing down ever so slightly, she leaned forward, straining to see through the rain. Suddenly, her eyes widened.

"Oh my goodness!" she gasped. Slamming on the brakes, she quickly turned her pickup around and drove straight up the farm's private drive, blatantly ignoring the No Trespassing sign.

Throwing open the metal gate, she trudged through the mud and muck toward the herd of horses. When she got within a few yards of them, she stopped dead in her tracks. The horses were completely emaciated, some barely able to stand. Next to them, beneath an ancient oak, two horses lay motionless, their manes matted with mud, their midsections grotesquely inverted. Her stomach churned.

What happened here?

Taking shelter under the tree, she pulled out her phone and dialed 9-1-1.

"9-1-1, what's your emergency?"

"Yes, I'm calling from the Nash farm off US 60 in Powhatan County," Penny began, her voice shaking. "There are several badly emaciated horses out in the field, and some of them appear to be dead."

"How many dead horses are there?" the operator asked matter-of-factly.

"At least two," she replied, glancing around the pasture, her eyes settling on the stables off in the distance.

"Okay, ma'am, someone from the sheriff's department and animal control will be there shortly."

After thanking the dispatcher, Penny tucked her phone into her coat pocket and headed toward the stables. "Please, God, don't let there be any more like these in there," she prayed.

Cold rain pelted her face as she forced her legs to carry her toward the open-air stalls at the top of a gentle hill. Off to the side stood a ranch-style house. One of the shutters hung askew, and the lower portion of a window had been boarded up.

She couldn't remember the last time she had seen the owner—a man who made a hobby of collecting horses he thought he could sell at a higher price.

Did he just get tired of it and take off? Her mind wandered back to the dead and dying animals in the pasture. How could anyone do that?

Wrapping her raincoat tightly around her, she quickened her pace. A fire burned in her stomach. Never had she felt so angry. As she neared the stables, she saw that empty feedboxes dotted the area and the November grass was almost bare. When was the last time these poor animals were fed?

When she finally reached the four wooden stalls, she took a deep breath and willed herself to look inside. All of them were empty. Thank God, she breathed. Then, just as she was about to turn and leave, she saw a hoof sticking out from behind the end stall.

"No, no, no, no, no..." she begged as she ran to the fallen horse.

She dropped to her knees, mud and manure seeping into her jeans. Her heart caught in her throat. She recognized the familiar short blond tail of the horse she had loved to visit through the adjoining fence. His sweet personality reminded her of a horse she had ridden as a child. Tears welling in her eyes, she gingerly touched the horse's side. Each rib protruded beneath the skin. She quickly jerked her hand away. The rain fell harder now, and muddy streaks flowed down the animal's body, revealing glimpses of the white-and-black polka-dotted coat hidden beneath the crusted-on mud and filth.

Three dead, she lamented.

The silence was broken by the sound of the front gate slamming shut. The authorities had arrived. Penny stood and headed back down to the pasture to meet them. She was soaked from head to foot and smelled of manure, but she didn't care.
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