#1: Their Proud Hoofs


I had wanted to try writing a novel for some time, and even before I put my fingers to the keyboard, I knew that the novel would be set in Central Virginia, to me a beautiful and intriguing part of the state.

Travel anywhere in the area and you’re immersed in the history of the place. Museums, and historic houses and sites are everywhere.  How about these?

Lynchburg: Thomas Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest, and Dr. George Cabell’s home, Point of Honor. Dr. Cabell was a friend and physician of Patrick Henry. He also acted as shipper of Jefferson’s crops down the James River.

Charlottesville: Marvels of Jefferson’s architecture, the University of Virginia and Monticello.

Lexington:  Washington and Lee where in Lee chapel you can see the famous reclining statue by Edward Valentine showing the weary general asleep on his camp bed. Traveller, Lee’s much-loved horse, is buried at this location also.

The beauty of Central Virginia always impresses visitors. The green of the forests is a color I’ve never seen elsewhere, and the forests themselves are lovingly preserved. In spring it’s “softly” warm, and there is the fragrance of the trees, shrubs and flowers. Ever smell boxwood? And the Blue Ridge Mountains make the area ever-interesting with their changing appearance from season to season.

And most important, there are the people and the horses.

There is so much more to Central Virginia, so much that makes it different from the other parts of the state. It was a lovely place to set the story.

Because I lived there eleven years, I knew a lot about it. I wanted to take readers into that cultural setting and put plenty of local color into the story. My aim was to write a mystery with a puzzle to solve, romance, realistic characters, and a tight, suspenseful plot with exciting events and well-researched material. In short, a mystery that readers couldn’t put down.

But there was more. A long time ago, I read an article in a horse magazine written by an anonymous vet who’d just finished a necropsy. The vet wrote bitterly that the horse had probably been murdered, and there was no way to prove it. Once again, a horse murderer benefited from a large insurance payoff.

There was the subject of the book: the death of three horses and how the murderer is discovered.

Along with a good story, I hoped to show readers that horses are vulnerable to abuse, something many people either ignore or fail to realize. Readers have told me since reading the book that this subject deserved to be written about rather than being talked about in whispers.

Summary of the Plot

Their Proud Hoofs starts during a November storm when the hilly roads in Central Virginia are covered in ice. At a breeding farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, equine insurance investigator Connie Holt finds a prize stallion dead in his stall–and a dead man huddled in the corner. Connie suspects the horse was murdered, but finds no evidence. Had the man put the murder into motion only to be killed by his victim?

Then two more horses die, and she must find the killer. To make matters worse, she’s dealing with a personal crisis, a love that can’t be returned.

Tension and suspense mount as Connie moves closer to discovering the murderer’s identity. As she pursues the truth, Connie is helped by her boss, Cary McCutcheon, who shares her devotion to horses and their welfare. Among the suspects are Rod Payson, a breeder whose wife’s tragic death has plunged him into depression and financial ruin; Pres Carter, a vet who needs money to restore his ramshackle antebellum mansion; Tony Stephens, a mysterious Northerner who presides over a fabulous estate but a touch-and-go horse venture; and Beau Taylor, a troubled stable hand.

To Connie, the elements of the mystery are like “shards of colored glass with odd shapes.” When at last she pieces them together, the completed mosaic reveals a horror she couldn’t foresee.


Chapter One

The champion quarter horse lay on his side with staring and sightless eyes. His bay coat shone. It looked as if, in the last throes, he’d rammed into a side wall of his stall, slid down it, and died.

His head was tilted up at an odd angle.

For a moment, Connie Holt contemplated the still body. She remembered the last time she’d seen Woolwine. He was running joyously in the summer pasture, first in one direction, and then veering off to run in the opposite direction, his black tail streaming behind him. This loss of freedom, innocence and beauty caused her throat to throb—the prelude to tears. Connie had seen many dead horses in her work and always had this reaction. She’d learned to swallow hard and get on with the job at hand. But this death was especially poignant, for it was clear that Woolwine had been terrified by what was happening to him.

In the midst of his panic, he’d kicked a hole in the back wall.

When the phone on her bedside table rang, waking her out of a deep, dreamless sleep, insurance investigator Connie Holt groaned. She’d spent the day visiting three farms to discuss complicated insurance claims the owners had submitted to the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency. Since the farms were widely separated from each other in Bedford, Amherst and Nelson counties, she’d been in her truck too many hours. She’d gone to bed around eight o’clock that night, her back and head aching. Now she remembered that it was her turn to be on night duty. The caller was probably her boss, Cary McCutcheon. A horse must be injured, sick or dead somewhere. It would be her job to examine the horse at the site and write a detailed report, Sighing, she put on her glasses and pressed “Talk.”

“That you, Cary?”

“Sorry, Connie.”

She mouthed a silent “Hell!” into the darkness of her warm, cozy bedroom.

“It’s Rod Payson’s horse Woolwine,” Cary continued. “Dead.”

“That marvelous stallion? Poor Rod. First Donna’s death and now this.”

“And to make it worse, there’s a dead man in the stall. Rod said he knew him. Police are on their way. Rod called them first, then his veterinarian, Jase Tyree, then us. Be careful driving up there, the roads are terrible. Ice storm.”

Both of them knew it would be a hard trip to Payson’s isolated horse farm in Amherst County. The hilly roads would be slippery and treacherous.

“See you later.”

Connie dressed quickly in her working gear. First, she put on warm thermal underwear, and then an oversize dark blue turtleneck, followed by a baggy wool sweater. She pulled jeans over her long legs. Next came comfortable boots permanently stained with stable muck. When she took a perfunctory glance in the mirror, she saw that her thick red hair had mutinied again. Marge at the Clip n’ Curl knew just what to do with it, but Connie hated the bother of getting her hair cut. No time to brush the snarls out tonight. Her favorite working hat would take care of the problem. She jammed on the old Stetson she’d picked up in Dallas visiting her son, then grabbed her fleece-lined coat, which had seldom failed to keep her warm in many a dank stall. The wind stung her face as she opened the door of her truck.

The weather was unseasonably cold for November in Central Virginia. People who lived in the James River valley were usually protected from rugged weather by the bulwark of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If a little snow fell, it generally melted on contact. The biggest danger was an ice storm and the inevitable slick roads.

It took a long time to get to Rod’s farm. She drove warily up US 29, passing wrecks of cars and trucks and frantic people trying to clear the road and get the injured to the hospital. Connie remembered it was the day after Thanksgiving. It’s time to mail the Christmas presents to the kids, she thought. Danny lived in Texas, Ellen in New Hampshire.

Her thoughts turned to Rod Payson and his problems. At one time, Payson had as many as ten stallions for breeding purposes. He trained and boarded as well, so his operation at Payson Stud was extensive: indoor and outdoor rings, two hundred acres of hilly pasturage.

Since Donna’s death, Rod had downsized his operation. But he had hung on to Woolwine, his most valuable horse. Everyone knew about Rod’s prize stallion and how much he was worth. Jase Tyree had documented the horse’s superb condition. Cary had approved coverage for a quarter of a million, based on Woolwine’s show record as a three-time prize winner of the Grand National Quarter Horse Competition, and his projected stud honors. Connie’s mind was full of questions. How could such a healthy horse die? Who is the dead man? How does he fit in?

Connie turned onto the series of steep and winding roads that led toward the mountains and Rod’s farm. In summer, the mountain ridges were covered with lush, blue-green vegetation. Driving within their confines made her feel serene and protected. But she didn’t like the blue mountains in November. In winter’s icy sterility, they inspired only melancholy.

A police car with flashing lights and idling motor was parked in front of the show barn where Rod kept Woolwine. Someone had turned on all the lights in the barn, and the unaccustomed blaze of light when it should have been quiet and dark was confusing the animals. They moved restlessly and poked wondering heads over the half doors of their stalls.

Connie walked down the central aisle to Woolwine’s large stall. Two policemen were whispering to one another over the body of a dead man huddled in one corner. Rod was kneeling beside Woolwine, his hand still caressing the animal’s soft coat.

“Excuse me,” she said to the policemen from the door of the stall, “I’m Connie Holt from McCutcheon Equine Insurance. I’ve come to look at Woolwine.” One of the men waved her in.

She caught a glimpse of the dead man’s shattered head, red and pulpy, before she knelt beside Rod. The familiar odor of hay, manure, and horseflesh hung over the stall, but to it had been added the smell of blood from the man’s body and the cigarette-permeated coats of the police. Must be about forty degrees in here, Connie thought.

She glanced at the side of Rod’s face. The twisting scars with hypertrophhic tissue were plainly visible. He’d taken a terrible pounding from a stallion a few years earlier. Surgeons at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center had managed to put that side of his face back together again, but hadn’t predicted Rod’s tendency to scar badly. With Donna’s care, he’d endured the surgery, the pain, and even the mirror’s reflection. In lucid moments away from the Demerol, he’d told Donna how to keep their business together. When he was finally able to give up the painkiller, he went right back to his office and the stables.

Last spring, Donna had died from a quick-growing cancer. Rod still couldn’t adjust to her absence. At the McCutcheon office, people heard he’d become silent and apathetic and easily distracted.

Before Donna’s death, Road looked after every detail of his successful breeding farm. Tall and powerfully muscled, he often delighted in breaking his colts himself. He’d loved Donna without reservation. His pride in his wife and in his farm extended to his cultural heritage. He was descended from the Monacans, the first people in Albemarle and Amherst counties. The ancient Monacans had hunted, fished, and mined copper. Modern-day Monacans still lived close to the sacred Bear Mountain near the town of Amherst.

Rod straightened and moved away. His shoulders dropped with the terrible weariness of depression.

“Go ahead, Connie,” he said.

After a moment’s contemplation of the body, she swallowed hard and began the careful visual scan that always started her investigation. She wanted to examine the horse and his stall as thoroughly as possible before Jase Tyree came.

The policemen finished their discussion and waited for her to tell them what she found.

“His femur appears to be broken,” she said. Rod nodded. “Looks like something happened to him and he panicked. He kicked that hole in the wall, breaking his femur, and then slid down into the straw. The postmortem might show more.”

“I did rounds at seven last night,” Rod said. “He was fine then. I walked through the stables again around two thirty.”

“Why did you make another inspection?” asked the older policeman. “Did you expect any trouble? Have you had a problem with intruders?”

“I haven’t been sleeping well so I often get up and walk through the barns. There haven’t been any prowlers, no, nothing like that.

“I found Woolwine and Job, there.  Called the police, my insurance company, and Jase Tyree, my vet.”

The younger policeman now asked, “So you know who the dead man is, Mr. Payson?”

“Yes. It’s Job. Job Hoskins.”

“How do you know? His face is pretty bad.”

“By his size, that old barn coat he always wore, and oh yes, that earring,” said Rod. His face was sad. “I always meant to ask him where he got that earring.”

“What would he be doing in the stall? Does he work here?”

“Yes, but he’s only temporary. He’s a,” Rod paused, swallowed and said, “was a wanderer. Came through here every winter, must be ten or eleven years now. I gave him odd jobs; come spring, he moved on. He told me once he had no kin. Never left an address or telephone number, so I couldn’t contact him.”

“Where was he sleeping?”

“In the bunkhouse. My hands only come during the day, so he had it all to himself.”

“Mr. Payson, could this man have tried to hurt the horse?”

“Oh no, he loved horses. My guess is he heard Wooley in trouble, went in to calm him down, and was killed. Poor old man.”

The officer nodded. “Without anyone to claim him, he’ll have to go to potter’s field in Lynchburg.”

“I’ll see to it he’s taken care of, funeral and burial,” said Rod. “After all, he worked for me a long time. I’ll sign any papers you need.”

“All right. An investigator and medical examiner are on the way, but it seems pretty clear what happened to Mr. Hoskins.”

“If the medical examiner and everyone else agree, I’ll call a funeral home in Amherst to come and get Job.”

“The horse is another matter. We’ll wait around for Dr. Tyree to tell us what he finds out.”

Connie heard Jase’s lumbering old pickup in the drive and straightened her aching back. She had withdrawn to an empty corner by the time Jase entered the stall, and, after a startled look at the man’s body, knelt by Woolwine.

Throwing back the hood of his down jacket, he brushed the hair from his forehead. He looked briefly at the horse, betraying no emotion at the trauma of the horse’s final moments. Rod, Connie, and the two cops stood awkwardly, watching Jase’s thin-fingered clever hands move slowly over the animal’s body.

The hopelessness of her love for Jase washed over Connie, and she thought again, as she had many times in his presence, Why can’t I just stop loving him?

Over six feet tall and rail-thin, the vet worked too many hours a day, wrestling with obstinate horses all over Central Virginia and operating his clinic in Monroe, an unincorporated area between the City of Lynchburg and the Town of Amherst. With broad shoulders, small waist, and long legs, a high energy level, and irreverent sense of humor, he had retained everything attractive about young men, even though he was almost forty-five. Now, watching him work, she noticed his taut facial muscles, compressed lips, strained face. His hands had a slight tremor.

It must be Les, she thought.

Jase had married Leslie Scott Wingfield two years ago after a courtship of six months. Before he’d become infatuated with Les, Connie had met him many times in her work. They had even dated for a while.

His energy always seemed inexhaustible. While he had always expressed his sadness over an animal’s problem in private, he was highly professional at the scene, staying in an uncomfortable stall as long as it took to form a working hypothesis.

She wanted to take him back to her house and hold him in her arms until he slept away whatever it was transforming him into the tight-lipped, strung-out man she saw.

After a few minutes, Rod admitted to the police, “I’m wiped out. All right if I go back to the house?”

They nodded.

“You know where I’ll be if you need me again,” said Rod. “Jase, come up to the house when you’re done.” Jase, examining  Woolwine’s neck, nodded. “Let’s go get some coffee, Connie.”

“Glad to,” she said. She was tired of her love for Jase.

With careful steps, they walked up the icy brick path to the long, low fieldstone and timber house. The Payson Labs came running, barking with excited yelps over the unaccustomed activity.

“Quiet, boys,” Rod said.

In his office, Rod excused himself to get the coffee. The dogs threw themselves down and Connie found a leather wing chair. She noticed that the stained Oriental rug was dusty, as were the shelves on either side of the stone fireplace and the trophies that graced them.

Rod returned with steaming mugs on an antique black metal toleware tray. His large hands almost obscured the painted pattern of purple violets and pink ribbons.

It was clear he didn’t want to talk. The two sat quietly, sipping coffee, until they heard the front door slam.

Jase came in, white with fatigue, and without sitting down, said abruptly, “I don’t know what to tell you. Wooley was obviously frightened by something and panicked. I wonder what could have scared him. You know, Rod, Wooley was sometimes spooked by small animals. I remember a couple of times when a feral cat got into his stall. Could you have left the doors to the barn open so something could get in?”

Rod looked uncertain, ran a hand over his stubbled chin. “I can’t remember whether they were open or not. Ever since Donna…oh, God, I just can’t remember. Hard to believe an outside animal could cause him to do that much damage to himself, Jase, even though he was pretty high-strung.”

“I’ll do the post later today. But I don’t think it will show anything wrong with the way he died.”

“I hope you’re right about that. If not, I’m in for a hell of a time. Wooley was insured for a lot of money. I don’t know what I’ll do if Cary doesn’t pay.”

“By the way, the medical examiner and detective showed up. I told them the same thing I told you about Wooley.”

“Are they still out there?”

“Yes,” said Jase.

“I’ll just sit here and wait for them to ring the bell,” said Rod. “Thanks for coming, Connie, Jase.”

“Try and get some sleep, Rod,” said Connie. “I’ll talk to Cary later today.”

“I’m so sorry, Rod,” said Jase.

Jase and Connie walked to their trucks.

“Hell of a thing,” said Jase.

“Yes. See you, Jase.”

“You bet, Con.”

They maneuvered their trucks slowly down the long, icy drive to US 29 and drove home, Jase to Monroe, Connie to Bedford County.

Neither man had asked Connie what she thought about the cause of Woolwine’s death. Usually she was angry if people in a case she was investigating gave no credence to her informed opinion, and she made sure they listened to her before she left the scene.

This time, she was glad no one had asked.

Reader Responses

“I was captivated from the very beginning…could hardly wait to see where and what she [protagonist] would encounter around the next bend in the road or in the next moment. The geographic area of events being so familiar made it even more appealing. So suspenseful, your vivid descriptions always putting me at …every scene as though I was in the present. Details interwoven heightened the mystery.” – Virginia

“Descriptive but not overly so. Informative about horses, suspenseful storyline, a little romance and intrigue, good locale, unexpected ending.” – Connecticut

“Polished off the book in 3 days. I really liked it.” – Tennessee

“I just got through reading your new book… I couldn’t put it down.” – Ohio

“I read the whole book last night, and loved every word. Thank you so much for writing it. It was a story that needed to be told!” – Texas

“…don’t think I’ve ever begun a mystery where I was immediately taken into the mind of the killer—unique to me. And your love of architecture and the South…certainly comes through with all the lovely details.” – New York

“It was delightful to see a woman character (smart, intelligent and beautiful) in the lead role. I like the way you made her a ‘real’ woman with a ‘real’ soul, and not some clone of a ‘Hero,’ without real feelings and emotions…The fact that she’s a woman still in search of true love with a heart that aches for a former love will touch the hearts of …female readers. The fact that she has a little, ‘fire and ice’ will appeal to …male readers. I can tell that you put a great deal of time and energy into your novel and the truth be known…I can’t wait until the next Connie Holt novel is in stores! I think you did a wonderful job of creating the next “Nancy Drew,” we girls can always use another “SHERO” to read about!” – A fan, awaiting your next Connie Holt novel, South Carolina

“It took me three months but I finally was able to get a copy . . .  and read it in less than 24 hours. I certainly learned a lot that I didn’t know, about horses, in reading this.”- Virginia

“Am reading your book… I love it. You are such a wonderful and writer and certainly know all about horses. I am 83 years old and have had horses all of my life and showed Tennessee Walking Horse from l950’s to l970’s. Can’t wait for your next book.” – Tennessee

“I just wanted to let you know that I finished your book and thought it was wonderful.  I really enjoyed it a lot.  My daughter is now reading it and I plan on passing it on to some of my friends.  Keep up the good work and I hope to see another book in the near future.” – Virginia

“Just finished . . .  I did enjoy the book but was left wanting more. I am a fan of horses and love a good mystery and am always grateful to find both in one package. Will there be more Connie Holt? I also love mules and have yet to see a story line that included a saddle mule (hint hint) or two.” – Tennessee

“Marilyn Fisher’s latest release is fun. Tightly woven suspense and detailed descriptions put the reader right in the middle of the story. With a well-thought out and followed-through- plot, solid intriguing characters and a different type of murder, (How many times do you see dead horses instead of people?) Fisher kept me spellbound. What I liked most was the fact the story didn’t end when the mystery was solved; it gave an ending (and for some a beginning) to the emotional upheaval created by the murders. Fun, interesting, the book is a perfect for companion for those muggy summer nights. And the fact the book takes place during the winter has nothing to do with it.” – From In the Library Reviews, by S. Tremayne

“…the very notion of including all the local places—well, I just love it and can’t wait for Marilyn to publish another story.” – Virginia

“…never having had much touch with the world of horses, I really enjoyed going somewhere I have not been. Visiting the veterinary school was an eye opener; seems horses are treated with the same technology as humans proving we are all the same—members of the animal kingdom. Also was drawn to the love many of the characters had for these animals making it a real tragedy when they lost them.” – New York

“Author Fisher, a true horse lover, has created a novel that is suitable for all ages and is delightful to read.” – Anna Bowman, Morning News, Florence, SC

“Marilyn M. Fisher spins a tale of death and destruction in the elite world of horse breeding in Central Virginia and keeps the intrigue going.” – Jodelle Greiner, Daily Register, Gainesville, TX

“…her characters are woven with great detail into an intricate tapestry of human bonding and interaction.” – Tommy D. Crow, Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, Seguin, TX

“You won’t want to put this one down–it’s a heart thumper, eyebrow raiser, jaw dropper, and more. The author draws the reader into the world of murder, horse killings, and true-to-life horsepeople characters. This book reveals a lot about the horse world that needs to be exposed. Well written and researched–a great read!” – Natural Horse

“Marilyn M. Fisher presents her readers with a suspenseful tale of murder and intrigue. Her character Connie Holt is a vividly realistic woman who is thrown into investigating the murder of a prize stallion against a web of deceit and danger. Readers will certainly enjoy Ms. Fisher’s smooth writing style that leads them along a twisting trail of equine death, and keeps them on their toes wondering where the killer will strike next. A fine effort that readily holds its own with the works of Barbara Michaels and Mary Higgins Clark.” – Laura J. Underwood, author of Ard Magister, Chronicles of the Last War, and the forthcoming Dragon’s Tongue

“A great read! Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. A must for anyone remotely associated with the equine industry.” – Mark A. Akin, DVM

“Horse lovers, this is not your feel-good Misty. The book is the real, raw deal in the horse world. Fisher’s fast-paced investigative thriller is hard to put down, especially with such extraordinary circumstances. With three mysterious murders on as many farms, and an equine insurance investigator as the heroine, the book draws you in and captivates you until agent Connie Holt names her culprit—but not without the expense of great personal sacrifice.” – Tom Burriss, Editor, Mid-South Horse Review

“A stunning debut. Marilyn Fisher is definitely a talent to watch!” – Kinley MacGregor, author of the book series Hunter Legends, Brotherhood of the Sword, The MacAllisters, The Sea Wolves

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