#3: Cross of Gold Road

Introduction

Sometimes readers are horrified by the mere idea  that horses can be killed and tortured by their owners and trainers. I know of a publisher who won’t let one of his equestrian writers have these things in her plots. When I started researching this type of book, I found many novels about horses, but there were and still are what I call in my mind “Pony Club” books, in which the horse is often a non-glamorous beast who starts out as a poor runner and ends up winning a prestigious race. Or the horse will be instrumental in bringing two teenagers together and through caring for the horse, they fall in love. But in riding and owning horses and being interested in their welfare, I learned that the other side of the story of horses’ lives is often sinister: when they no longer run as fast as the owner or trainer wants, they are disposed of in some way and that extends to killing them. Or they are drugged in hopes they will win races. Or they are sold to people who don’t want to know the history of the horse, but just want an animal to ride or to train young people with. When it finally came to writing my third Connie Holt novel, I knew that I could no longer put off using the horrendous crime of soring in a novel. Soring is a federal and state crime, the prosecution of which has largely failed to stop for all time the deliberate hurting of horses by burning their legs with chemicals and using other pain-inducing techniques. The Humane Society, Friends of Sound Horses, and many veterinarian groups have doggedly fought against soring using every means at their disposal. In the former, HSUS planted an observer in a stall who later turned in photographs of a soring which made the news and awakened people as to what actually goes on in torturing a horse. FOSH bravely publishes the names of people in the horse industry who have been punished for soring. With all the support now being given to another attempt to stop soring, the passage of a federal law called PAST, it still looks dark for horses to whom this torturous treatment is applied. The issue is a partisan issue motivated by the financial contributions those involved in soring give a representative, by ignorant people who want to believe that soring is just a good old boy custom and there isn’t any harm in it, or maybe the worst sin, those who refuse to believe that such a thing could be done and shut their minds. I open Cross of Gold Road  with this idea by the great eighteenth British philosopher and statesman,  Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I must confess that it was hard to write this book because of the subject matter. While it was delightful to move back into Connie Holt’s little cottage and record her goings on, the plight of an escaped sored horse was devastatingly hard to set down on paper. The research is there, nothing I have said is untrue, but the act of thinking about what my little horse in the book went through was and is very painful. In fact, that is why my third book is shorter than the other two. But I hope, as I hope for all my books, that readers who are good men and women will do something about soring: join HSUS, FOSH or other organizations designed to fight the abuse of horses; bring soring out in the light through social sites such as Facebook; do anything else they can do to finally defeat this evil practice. That is where Cross of Gold Road comes in. That’s what my major contribution is to the struggle. But I felt that there should be more in the novel than just the single issue. Here is what I wrote to friends and readers about Connie’s new adventure: This time her case is about a lost Walking Horse that has been brutally treated and is found wandering in a pasture. She vows to discover the truth behind this state and federal crime and bring the criminals to justice. But there are complications. She’s been working with a new hire at the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency, a young man with crippling PTSD. And a high school student enters the scene with important information but with him comes the issue of child abuse. And of course I couldn’t let Connie’s romance with Tony, the nefarious man from Their Proud Hoofs, drop. Too many readers want to know what has happened to the two since He Trots the Air. I’d like to ask if you would write me about the issue of soring once you’re read the book, and I will publish your responses, although without your name since I don’t want to cause anyone’s personal material to be hacked.

Summary

In Cross of Gold Road, Connie Holt, investigator for Cary McCutcheon’s equine insurance company in Virginia, takes on a new case of an escaped Walking Horse found wandering in McCutcheon’s pasture.  Unknown persons have sored him. Soring a horse is punishable in both federal and state law; thus Connie hopes to accumulate enough evidence against the sorers so they can be prosecuted and punished. But how are you to do that when so many members of horse communities refuse to give information about those who sore? Some are frightened when sorers threaten them; some don’t want to lose the business sorers give them; and some prefer to deny that such a shameful practice exists. And there are three complications that affect the investigation. Before the case started, Cary had hired a friend’s son as an assistant because the young man has PTSD and is fast sinking into disabling depression. When Connie takes on the case, she asks that the young man help her with it; he’s been making a modest improvement and she thinks he will benefit by learning how to investigate a case successfully. He is still fragile. Can he stand up to the demands of the case, including the strong possibility of physical danger? Another young man who goes to high school enters the scene, and with him comes a new but related issue that suddenly becomes important: child abuse. A third quandary is the man Connie has come to love and who lives far away. Cary despises him, for good reason. Now the man becomes alarmed when he hears about the investigation, fearful Connie is putting herself in danger and will be hurt; in that case he will come to Virginia to be there for her. If he does, it will probably mean a confrontation with Cary. When the case comes to an end, Connie will learn anew about the power of horses for good.

Excerpt

All that long April day, Tim Lomax worked on his father’s dairy farm, doing what he had done before he became a soldier. Ever since he’d returned to Elon, Virginia, from Afghanistan, he tried every day to work so hard that he would somehow fall into an exhausted sleep at night. In the war, in down times, he’d sit quietly somewhere in the blasted landscape and imagine he was home again doing his regular chores: getting the cow’s fodder ready, cleaning up after them, herding them out to the pasture, going to find them later when they wandered up into the mountains. He dreamed of the little creek bank on his father’s property where he’d eat a sandwich his mother had made, and sit and rest awhile. He wanted things the same way they had been a little more than four years ago. When he was innocent of what war is: how a man looks when you’ve killed him, how it feels when your buddy drops to the ground dead without warning, killed by a mujahedeen sniper. Everyone said in his unit that the first thing they would do when they were discharged was go back home and never leave it again. Well, he had come back. And right away, it started happening. PTSD, the Army medics had called it. Tonight, he had gotten into his bed in the room with the chess club certificate of merit for his winning every match in his senior year and the picture of his stage crew buddies. He woke in the dark, jerked abruptly from the familiar dream he’d been having. The bed—sheets, pillows, blanket—were soaked with sweat. When he tried to sit up, he found himself entangled in the twisted sheets, trapping him as if they were the arms of the faceless enemy. As always, he remembered parts of the dream: he was back in Afghanistan, on patrol, so afraid of IEDs that he looked at almost every inch of the ground he would have to step on for fear of what might be buried underneath the surface. He was speaking quietly to his buddy Mack, lips hardly moving, hissing “Woman coming, watch out.” An enemy wearing the all-concealing burqa could be a man or a woman. The dream always stopped at this point, when the enemy detonated the explosive, blowing up himself or herself, along with Mack and him. As Tim lay struggling, the door to his room opened, the light from the hallway streaming in. The tall, bulky figure in the door peered at him and said, “Need some help, son?” He said, “No Pop, no help.” The door closed quickly, not because his father didn’t care, but because, Tim knew, he kept refusing help and sometimes he got pretty mad when it was offered. He disentangled himself from the bedclothes and then changed the bed and took a shower. He was due to get up in a few hours at 6:00, when the farm day would start again. He’d go down to the kitchen where his father’s wife would be standing at the stove getting the man-sized breakfast ready for his father and him, and trying to start up a conversation, to which Tim chose not to reply. Again that day, he would try to do his job and forget everything about that far-off, alien, ever-threatening land with its inscrutable people who might well be out to kill him, along with all the other soldiers who were in Afghanistan to serve and protect.

Reader Responses

“Love that you started out with Tim, a war veteran suffering from PTSD. This certainly is something that needs to be brought to our attention as well as your mission to stop the illegal practice soring horses. It’s also great to get back to a group of people who try to make the world a better place.” – New York

“This was the best book yet. I read it in one sitting. Very well done.” – Georgia

“Cross of Gold Road is the newest fast-paced and engrossing entry in the equestrian themed mystery series by Marilyn M. Fisher, following Their Proud Hooves [formerly The Case of the Three Dead Horses]and He Trots the Air. Cross of Gold Road continues the saga of equine insurance investigator Connie Holt in Central Virginia as she investigates the abusive crime of horse soring, which is rendered all the more horrifying because of the author’s evocative description of the truly gentle and frightened nature of horses. Among Fisher’s gifts as a writer are creating believable, complex non-stereotypical characters, including Connie Holt, and in this entry seamlessly integrating societal ills in the narrative, which are never mere plot devices. Intriguing characters in this book include a young veteran suffering from PTSD, a victim of child abuse and a love interest who is seeking redemption for past behavior.” – Georgia

“Just finished the book – and your review. (I forwarded you the confirmation email that it has been posted separately). I really enjoyed the book! You did a great job describing the setting for the awful abuse – so horrifying! I really liked your rural Virginia characters. You really know what the people there are like. Very authentic descriptions of the countryside too. You are right on the money about the jungle-like growth in the woods there. I was glad that Tony has completed his rehabilitation and been accepted by Cary. The veteran, the young boy and the hardware store owner were so sympathetic. I wanted to visit that hardware store! It reminded me of the one in Nebraska City where you could always find old guys sitting on stools around the counter who were eager to help you find everything you needed for a project and would teach you how to do it too. Have you any plans to write any more?” – Ohio

“This story continues the Connie Holt mystery theme of skullduggery in the equine world. Again the plot centers around a crime against horses. Though astonishing and brutal–the more so as it is a feature of our “enlightened” time– the crime, its perpetrators, and its resolution are held in balance with the development of the characters, both old and new. Connie Holt finds herself obliged to come to terms with the conflict between the two most significant men in her life. She and others must decide how best to help a boy traumatized by an abusive father and a young ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. The Central Virginia ambiance is believable and important, as in the previous novels. And as always in this series, a horse is the catalyst for healing and growth. No one appreciates more than this author the capacity of horses to bring out both the best and the worst in human nature–and the need for people of good will to act firmly and effectively on behalf of these amazing creatures.” –  Ohio

“This third installment in her Connie Holt series really has heart. Connie and her boss, Cary McCutcheon, team up to help a war-worn vet and a local youth triumph over their dire situations, all while healing a young victimized horse, and of course, bringing the bad guys to justice. Cross of Gold Road also has a higher calling, one clearly very important to the author. The movement to finally truly end the tragedy of horse soring, a horrible walking horse “training method”, has finally been gathering steam this year in the U.S. legislature, and through this novel Marilyn M. Fisher has done her part to help educate the public about this well-hidden and dirty practice. Historically, even speaking out against soring has sometimes proven dangerous. Fisher is taking a brave stance writing this story, and I, for one, hopes it makes an impact. Well done!” – Tennessee

“Once again we accompany equine insurance investigator Connie Holt as she unravels the mystery of a young horse found unaccompanied and suffering in a field near the ranch. We learn the disturbing details of yet another illegal and outrageous procedure perpetrated on horses for the sole purpose of inflating the egos and bank accounts of their owners. Along the way we are introduced to a refreshing new character and reacquainted with others from previous novels. Connie’s lover is still in the picture and is undergoing some changes in attitude and behavior to atone for past misdeeds. The McCutcheons are still operating their ranch and insurance agency along with some new hires. The new character is a young Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. As a Vietnam veteran I found him most interesting. The men and women serving today are all volunteers and represent only about one percent of the general population. They face new and challenging assignments in dangerous locations and the effects can linger on even after returning to civilian life. That is what this veteran is experiencing and not dealing with when he meets and forms a bond with the mystery horse. We watch as Connie, with the young vet assisting her, puts together the pieces of the puzzle leading up to the conclusion.” – New York

“Fisher’s latest novel follows an ensemble cast employed at the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency in rural Virginia. The insurance agency, owned by Cary McCutcheon and his wife, Pam, investigates and prosecutes those who commit crimes against horses. Soon into the novel, readers meet Tim Lomax, an Army veteran who has recently returned from Afghanistan to his home in Virginia. Lomax is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, which his paralyzing symptoms of PTSD make worse. McCutcheon decides to give Lomax a chance, hiring him to work on his ranch. Not long after Lomax starts working for McCutcheon, a colt shows up on the outskirts of the ranch. The colt shows clear signs of soring, a form of torture inflicted upon horses to give them the recognized Tennessee Walking Horse gait. While rehabbing the colt, McCutcheon and his crew begin to investigate the people who perpetrated the crime, welcoming Lomax to the case. Fisher’s brief novel takes a stand against animal cruelty and horse abuse without being heavy-handed or dry. Her characters speak for themselves, allowing the message to naturally come across in their words. Lomax’s PTSD and the emotional demons that torment the abused colt are subtly complementary, illustrating how horses and humans can heal one another. Readers might wish for more time with Fisher’s down-to-earth, inspiring characters and to learn more about their healing work. If there’s one fault with Fisher’s novel, it’s that it could be a bit more accessible for readers approaching it with little to no knowledge about the equestrian world. Secondary characters are introduced along with their titles, but it might be unclear to some readers what exactly their functions are within a horse agency (or even what a horse agency is). Still, Fisher’s moving tale doesn’t flood the reader with overly technical language, and readers will be easily immersed. A compelling story of healing, both human and animal.”- Kirkus Review

“Indeed I finished your book and found it an excellent read. I’m glad your Tony was a not a perfect person—more realistic and in the end we realize people can see the error of their ways and change particularly when the power of love is present.” – New York

“Could not wait to get home to read Marilyn’s book. I finished it today. The book was enjoyable. Easy to read and I learned about soring (how awful).” -New York

“I finished the book last week with full intentions of sending you my critique.  As if I am qualified to critique any book, but here goes.  Again, I was glad to keep up with Connie and all the other characters.  I have heard of soring all my life, particularly around Shelbyville Walking Horse time.  I never took the time to understand “soring”. I knew about the chains, wires, etc. but was unaware of all the torture the animal is put thru. It was a great information book for people like myself.  Just wish it had been longer to keep up with Connie and Tony; and the McCutcheons as well. Great new characters, so CAN I EXPECT MORE STORIES ALONG THE SAME LINES??????? Thanks for keeping me entertained, and informed.  Keep it going, Please.” – Tennessee

“Got it, read it.  Amazing.  I couldn’t put it down, Marilyn.  I had never heard of the practice of soring and am appalled.  I spent my time with quarter horses but remember Tennessee Walkers at show and their unbelievable gaits.  I am certain that at least one horse owner/trainer that I knew did this now that I think about his horses and his cruelty to dogs.  Thank you.  This is something that needs national attention!” -Virginia

“Marilyn M. Fisher has written another mystery in the Connie Holt Series that will appeal not only to those who love a mystery, but to all horse lovers. Connie Holt, equine insurance investigator, once again puts herself in danger while investigating those who practice the illegal and barbaric method of soring the legs of beautiful Tennessee Walking Horses, solely for the purpose of forcing the show horses to have a high-stepping gait. The torturers get paid handsomely by unscrupulous horse owners seeking blue ribbons at Walking Horse shows. While telling the story of Holt trying to save a young colt from soring by finding and prosecuting the scoundrels who endangered the colt, Fisher details the process graphically educating the reader on the federal and state laws against soring. Horse lovers and people with no knowledge of the practice may find it hard to read and even hard to believe that it happens. However, people who learn that these beautiful animals are mistreated may continue to educate others.” – Florida

“I really liked the fact that it was about soring Tennessee Walkers. The average person knows nothing about this horrific practice; you exposed the horrors very well. I remember when I was at the New London Horse Show many years ago and overhearing a girl fuss at her trainer because she didn’t win the walking class she was in, and said, ‘You didn’t sore him enough!’ I was furious! I could tell when she was riding in the ring that the horse had either had ginger stuffed up his rear or chemicals put on his feet. What you wrote about is important for all people to know about, not just walking horse folks.” – Virginia

“To all Marilyn Fisher fans who are following her Connie Holt series: with her newly released book, Cross of Gold Road, Ms. Fisher has managed to keep us in suspense again. This is a unique horse story with a twist–making readers more aware of our returning military-active and veteran members of all branches of service who return with PTSD, for people of all ages who do not fit the ideal mold, and the abuse to horses by sorers that makes insurance investigations more challenging. This story revolves around a veteran who has returned home, a young high school students who is plagued with not fitting in, and horse abusers. A must read!” – Virginia

 


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