watched as my buddy Hawk, a.k.a. Victoria
Hawkins to her popular friends, led Towaco, her
Appaloosa, out of my barn. Frost puffed from
his nostrils. Snow dusted Hawk's dad's new
"Load him up!" Mr. Hawkins called.
I wanted to grab Hawk and Towaco and
gallop out of there at Thoroughbred speed.
Near the trailer my dad and his friend and
fellow inventor, Madeline Edison, watched.
Actually, they were watching Madeline's seven-year-old
son watching the Appaloosa. Mason has
a condition that makes him unplug the world
sometimes and tune everybody out. But he'd
bonded with Towaco when I'd given him riding
lessons and a special kind of horse therapy.
Madeline wanted him to see the Appy off.
Mr. Hawkins, in dress pants and a gray overcoat,
was keeping his distance from horsehair.
Hawk's parents were in the middle of a divorce,
and her dad was moving to Florida. Hawk said
he'd taken a partnership in a law office, where
he'd be defending murderers and robbers. She
got to miss the next week and a half of school to
go with him to see his new place. Plus, her dad
had entered Towaco in a Florida horse show.
"I will be back before New Year's," Hawk
promised as we reached the trailer. "Do not
look so sad."
I tried to grin back at her. True, I'd miss
Hawk. It had taken us months to become good
friends. But that wasn't what had my stomach
knotted like a hobbled stallion. I watched the
snowflakes layer white on Hawk's long, dark
hair. Tiny drifts pressed against the trailer tires.
"Mr. Hawkins?" My voice, which always
sounds gravelly, cracked. "Maybe you should
wait until the snowstorm's over."
He laughed. His perfect haircut didn't budge
in the wind. "This is hardly a snowstorm,
Winifred. At any rate, we'll drive out of it."
"But the roads. They'll be slick. And with the
trailer-" I started.
Dad stopped me. "They'll be all right, Winnie."
His eyes looked sad, and I knew he knew.
I was remembering a blizzard in Wyoming
two years ago, the day Mom and I had gone out
in it to see a horse. My mind flashed a picture of
the instant after our car spun on the ice and out
of control. I have a photographic memory-not
a good memory, but one that stores pictures in
my brain and spits them out, even when I don't
want to see them. And I didn't want to see this
one-my mom's hand limp over the steering
wheel, her head against the window
Nickers, my white Arabian, whinnied from the
paddock. She pranced along the fence, looking
gorgeous, as white as the snow falling around her.
Sometimes I think she knows exactly what I'm
thinking and exactly what I need.
"Nickers doesn't want you to go either,
Hawk," I said, pretending that's all there was to
it. "She'll miss Towaco."
Towaco had been my first "problem horse"
when I set up business as Winnie the Horse
Gentler in Ashland, Ohio. I'm only in seventh
grade, but I learned from the best, my mom.
She gentled horses instead of breaking them.
And now people pay me to do the same thing.
"Towaco!" Mason let out the name like a cry
from his soul. It hurt to hear it. Pulling away
from his mom, he ran up to the Appy. His
stocking cap flew off, and wisps of angel-blond
hair blew across his forehead. Green mittens
reached up for Towaco's neck.
Hawk lifted him so he could hug her horse.
Mason's lighter than a sack of feed. "Towaco is
coming back, Mason," Hawk promised. "Maybe
he will bring you back a blue ribbon from the
Florida horse show. Wouldn't that be nice?"
Mason's little shoulders shook when Hawk set
him down. "Don't go, Towaco," he whispered.
Towaco nuzzled Mason's hair. Mason hardly
talked at all around us until he and Towaco got
"They'll be back, Mason," I said, kneeling
But he didn't seem to hear me. He stared,
unblinking, at a spot on Towaco's shoulder.
He'd already gone away in his mind.
Madeline walked up and put her hands on
Mason's shoulders. "Come on, honey," she
coaxed, drawing him away from the Appy.
"Hey, tiger!" Dad shouted, his voice
fake-cheery. "What say we go for ice cream?"
Mason's gaze stayed locked on Towaco.
Madeline turned to Dad. "I just hate this!
Maybe it was a mistake to let Mason get so
attached to that horse in the first place. It's too
hard on him to say good-bye."
"They're coming back, Madeline," Dad
"He doesn't understand that, Jack!" she
I don't like to hear her say "Jack." She's the
only one who calls him that. While I was becoming
Winnie the Horse Gentler, my dad was
changing from the Wyoming Mr. Jack Willis,
insurance boss, into Odd-Job Willis, Ashland's
handyman. I'd rather hear Madeline call Dad
"Odd-Job" than "Jack." Mom called him Jack.
Towaco followed Hawk into the large,
"Don't forget to stop and let him walk
around," I pleaded as Hawk walked back down
the ramp. We shoved the tailgate shut. "And
don't let your dad drive fast."
Hawk grinned at me and pulled from her
pocket a small box wrapped in fancy Christmas
paper. "Don't open it until Christmas."
"Thanks, Hawk." I wished I'd done my shopping
earlier. But at least this year, for the first
time in my 12 and a half years, I had my own
Christmas money. I'd managed to save from the
fees I'd gotten for training horses and boarding
Towaco. "You'll get yours as soon as you get
back, okay?" I said as I watched Hawk get into
the car with her dad.
Dad, Madeline, and I waved as the black
trailer bounced away and disappeared around
the corner. Only Mason stood stone still, not
waving, staring as if he could still see the spots
on Towaco's back.
"Want to come with us to get something to
eat, Winnie?" Dad asked as Madeline herded
Mason toward their van. "We're picking up
Lizzy from Geri's house." Lizzy is my "little"
sister, a year younger than me, but two inches
taller. She also got the great hair and skipped
the freckles. Life is so unfair.
"Yes, come with us," Madeline agreed, still
pushing Mason toward the van.
I didn't like doing family-like stuff with
Madeline. She's tall and too skinny and
nowhere near as pretty as Mom was, but she's
okay. It's just that I don't think I'll ever get used
to Dad having a friend who's a girl.
Note to self: not a girlfriend.
"No thanks," I finally answered. "I've got to
get to the pet store."
I walked from our house at the edge of town
through snow flurries to Pat's Pets in town. Passing
by houses with Christmas lights and manger
scenes, I saw baby Jesuses everywhere. I did a
mental checklist of Christmas gifts I wanted to
buy. It helped keep my mind off Hawk and the
trailer and the snow.
Ashland doesn't have a lot of stores, and I
refuse to buy things from A-Mart, which is
owned by the Spidells. They own half of the
businesses in town, including Stable-Mart, a
fancy stable where horses are held prisoners in
their stalls with almost no turnout time. What I
needed to do was shop around on the Internet.
Stepping into Pat's Pets felt like changing
seasons. Dogs yapped in the back, birds
squawked, and the whole store smelled like
spring. I hung my damp jacket on the coatrack
and shook snow out of my hair. "Pat?"
"Like, hi." Catman Coolidge didn't look up
from the computer. He was speed-typing, using
only his thumbs and pinkies. Catman and I help
man the Pet Help Line, answering e-mails
people write in about their pets. He takes the
cat questions. I handle the horse questions. And
Eddy Barker answers questions about dogs.
"Hey, Catman!" I watched over his shoulder
while he answered his last e-mail. I wondered if
the people writing him had any idea what he
looks like. Catman is a throwback to the 60s or
70s when people used to dress funny and
protest war. He has long, wavy, blond hair and
eyes as blue as a Siamese cat's. He's probably
the only eighth-grader in the world who still
wears tie-dyed shirts, striped bell-bottoms, and
flip-flops, even in the winter.
Someone had written in:
My cat doesn't understand a word I
say, and I can't understand her meows.
Can you give me a quick course in cat
I watched Catman's fingers fly over the keys
as he answered:
Be cool, LonelyCat!
If your cat's meowing, she's talking to
you! Cats meow at humans. They hiss, purr, and growl at other cats. High-pitched
sounds mean "Hi." Low-pitched
"ow" means "Watch out, man! Don't mess with me." Keep your voice
high. Cats dig about 50 human words.
Catman logged off. "M wants to know if
Hawk and Towaco split." He nodded to the
corner of the store, where his buddy sat cross-legged,
typing away on a laptop. As usual, M
wore black from head to toe.
I hadn't heard M say anything, but I answered
him anyway. "Hey, M! They just left."
I think he raised an eyebrow, which is talkative
for M. As far as I know, nobody has any
idea what the M stands for. He never says
much, except for once in a school debate when
he blew us away by speaking like a professor.
I caught a glimpse of a brown curl popping
over the counter in the middle of the store. "Pat?"
Pat Haven stood up to her full five-foot
height. "Winnie! I didn't see you! Reckon I'm
getting blind as a bat! No offense." Pat always
excuses herself to the animals in her expressions.
"Hawk get off okay?"
I nodded. I'd been trying to put Hawk and
Towaco and their snowy trailer ride out of my
mind. These questions about her weren't helping.
"Mind if I use the computer for a little
"Chill, Horse Gentler," Catman said flatly.
"You got mail."
I sighed. "Guess I can shop after the horse
e-mails." Usually I cant wait to answer the horse
questions. I love my job at the pet store. But
today I wanted to order Christmas gifts. I only
had two and half weeks until Christmas, so I
was already cutting it close.
Catman turned the computer over to me, and
I logged on. It looked like Barker had already
answered the dog mail. I started working my
way through the horse questions.
My horse's feet stink! Is there such a
thing as horse-foot deodorant for him?
Stinky hooves are serious. Your horse
might have thrush, an infection that
makes the hoof break down and fall
apart. Is your horse's stall too wet or
dirty? Move him to clean, dry ground.
Keep the lines of the frog clean (the
grooves that make a V on the bottom
of the foot). If the hoof looks black or
has runny stuff inside, call your vet!
I had just finished answering the last horse
e-mail and was about to run a search on invention
magazines for my dad's Christmas gift when
the ding went off. Another e-mail. I thought
about leaving it for next time. Then I imagined
a horse in trouble. I clicked on New Mail.
To Winnie the Horse Gentler: There's an old horse who looks kinda
And I know the mean owner won't
give a lick.
So now he's ready to sell it for glue.
You better write quickly and tell me
what to do.
My first reaction was to jump through the
screen and save that horse. Then I read the
rhyming note again. Chances were, it was a
hoax. Somebody like Summer Spidell and her
crowd could have been playing a practical
joke. Still, I couldn't risk letting it go unanswered.
Do whatever you can to buy that
horse. If you can't keep it, give it away
to somebody who can.
-Winnie the Horse Gentler
I tried to get my mind back on shopping. The
e-mail probably wasn't real, and I really did
want to get into the Christmas spirit.
Right away I found the perfect gift for Dad-a
one-year subscription to Gizmo Magazine.
He'd brought back a sample copy from the
Invention Convention in Chicago, where he'd
met Madeline. Dad had read that magazine so
much, pages were scattered all over our house.
I'd already asked Pat to order a special terrarium
for Lizzy. I'd never have enough money to
get her the iguana too. But the terrarium was
the expensive part. And my sister, who loves
lizards and all reptiles, would want to pick out
her own iguana anyway.
That left Pat. I did a search on cowboy hats
and found one store with over 4,000 of them.
"Catman, do you think Pat would like this?"
I glanced where M had been sitting. He was
gone, and so was Catman.
Shrugging, I bookmarked my favorite hat. Pat
would love it in red.
I bounced around the Internet, trying to get
ideas for Barker and Catman and Hawk. Nothing
"You still at it?" Pat asked. I hadn't heard her
"Pat, did Lizzy's terrarium come yet?"
She shook her head, sending a stray curl
across her forehead. She blew it back up. "That
iguana company's slow as snails, no offense."
The store, which had been full of customers
when I'd walked in, was almost empty now.
"What time is it?"
"You're kidding!" I started to get up when the
mail alert sounded again.
"You can leave that till tomorrow if you want,
Winnie," Pat suggested, heading to the door to
meet a customer.
But I couldn't leave the note. I'd wonder all
night if I'd left a horse in distress. I clicked on
the e-mail and read the subject heading:EMERGENCY!
I stared at the capital letters until they blurred,
until I could force myself to read the message:
Go home! Now! Run! Run straight to
your pasture! NOW!
I stood up so fast the computer chair flipped
over. My knees felt weak. An emergency? In my