by Kathy China
Dan. Even the name sounded steady and dependable. He, the beautiful Belgian steed who had never frightened a single tourist, trod the streets of downtown Charleston. The sturdy clops of his hooves accompanied the narrative of the tour guide, creating a tempo that lulled the carriage passengers into sublime relaxation.
“Here, on the Battery, is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired,” explained the female tour guide dressed in a uniform inspired by the Confederacy. The carriage moved along cobblestone streets. It was a balmy June day. The breeze lifted Dan’s forelock gently, while Sunny, his harnessed Belgian partner, blew through his nostrils.
Dan and Sunny easily pulled the 1200-pound black carriage with the twelve tourists and tour operator back to 50 Anson Street, where the carriage horses were stabled and cared for. The horses had stopped automatically at key attractions on the fifty-minute tour, and wended their way through vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
Dan’s ears moved forward expectantly when they reached the barn on Anson Street. Soon the water misters sprayed a cool mist on the Belgians’ dark orange coats. The team stopped at the water trough, and a sixteen-year-old groom, Amy, caught Dan’s harness. There were slurping sounds as both horses gulped the fresh water.
“Easy, pretty boy.” Amy touched Dan’s rump, then lifted his tail to place the thermometer. “Very good,” she soothed as she looked at the numbers. Sunny was next.
“I bet you’re wishing you were back on John’s Island on winter vacation,” Amy said, referring to the three months Dan and Sunny had been out to pasture and allowed to kick, rear, and nip each other. “Those three months had you all fat and sassy. Now you’re working for your food again.”
Bobby Anders, the manager who stood nearby with several other grooms, interjected, “But I don’t miss the high vet bills caused by their shenanigans.” The $60,000 – $80,000 annual budget allocated for veterinary care was exceeded when the horses were injured due to unfettered rough play. Bobby looked around at the grooms. “By the way, Sylvia will be here tomorrow before the tours start to complete the horses’ monthly exams,” he announced. “You’ll need to be here at four-thirty instead of five in the morning to start taking and logging the temperatures. After you feed the horses and check their water, one of you will assist Sylvia, while the others start grooming, washing, and medicating each horse as the medical exam is completed.”
“Will we still be ready for the nine o’clock tours?” Amy asked.
“Yes. You have a full crew of good workers coming in the morning. If you don’t get the stalls stripped and new shavings added before harnessing you can do it after the carriages leave.”
Another groom stepped up to help Amy unfasten the diaper from the rigging that held it in place at Dan’s backside. They moved in unison to dump it before reattaching it and moving on to Sunny.
As she worked, Amy called over her shoulder to her boss, “When do I get the boom truck? The manure dumpster is getting full.”
“I’m bringing it over from the shop today,” Bobby replied. “Tomorrow night, I’ll rotate these horses. Sylvia is going to the other barn to vet the horses before they get here.”
“OK. Here we go, boys,” Amy said. “Let’s get you loaded.” The second tour was about to begin.
Tours completed, Dan and Sunny settled into their stalls for evening rations. It was a familiar routine for the horses. The caretakers watched closely for any sign of colic or distress. The grooms kept them watered, fed, washed, and groomed. The salt of their sweat had no time to damage their sleek coats, which were monitored closely for any signs of rubbing from their harnesses.
The second shift had ended and only two staff members, known as barn girls, remained when a female figure began to pace restlessly along the walkway on the second floor of the stable. She began raising and lowering the small lift impatiently.
“D-d-did you see that?” One barn girl asked the other while pointing to the second floor.
“Yes,” the girl whispered. “Let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps late at night.”
“I mean, did you see the . . . the ghost? She looks like a little girl wearing a white dress. And the lift, the lift was moving up and down.”
“It’s late. My tired eyes can see movement almost anywhere. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m tired.”
The two made their way to the door, securing the last pitchforks on their wall hooks and switching off the lights before exiting the building.
I thought they would never leave, Mary, the ghostly figure, thought. Now downstairs, Mary moved from stall to stall, in search of a horse to mount. She selected one of the animals, a handsome Percheron. Her toes found the narrow slits between stall boards as she carefully worked her way to the top of the partition. From there, she could surely get astride the tall, broad animal. But as she reached the top boards, the horse startled and jumped over the stall door. Mary wailed in frustration.
Dan’s head jerked up with his ears pointed. The bolting Percheron stopped in front of Dan’s stall. Dan touched noses with him and sniffed. Unharmed, but frightened, the Percheron remained close to Dan’s side. Calmed, he stared back at his stall. Dan stared too. Nothing.
Mary, now invisible, had sunk into the stall shavings. She knew she didn’t have many options. Without the assistance of others, she would not be able to mount a horse. She quietly made her way back up the stairs, careful not to disturb the horses again. She loved horses with all her might. She had waited so long to ride again, since that day when she was six . . . since the deadly accident. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, during the vet’s visit. That is my only chance, thought Mary.
The following morning Bobby checked on the grooms and veterinarian before he set off to meet the farrier at a nearby cafe. After managing the company for the last nine years, he was comfortable leaving the horses in the capable hands of his employees. Over coffee, the two talked about the Percheron that had been found outside his locked stall earlier that morning, with a loose shoe that needed to be reattached.
“Amy said we should call him Pegasus from now on,” Bobby joked.
The farrier laughed good-naturedly. “Sounds about right to me,” he said, “but you won’t need my services for long if your horses take to flying.”
Bobby snorted, “I hope they don’t fly. That would require all new equipment, which I’m not prepared to maintain. Besides, what would become of the horse crap?” he joked.
They continued to talk about the replacement of the horses’ rubber shoes and upcoming farrier work while walking back to the barn. Suddenly, a huge draft horse barreled down the street toward them. Bobby’s eyes widened. “That’s my horse!”
“He’s spooked!” The farrier shouted and dove for a doorway.
Bobby jumped into the middle of the street and planted his feet wide while he waved his arms up and down in wide arcs. He’ll never be able to stop. This is not going to end well, he thought.
The horse slammed to a halt in front of him. Bobby grabbed at the horse’s halter and soothed him, “Easy Dan, easy.” The horse’s sides heaved in and out. His eyes bulged wild with fright. “What in the world scared you, boy?”
In answer, Dan blew large droplets of snot in Bobby’s face. Some things just could not be explained.
“I can’t believe you jumped in front of that horse! That was either the stupidest or bravest act I have ever seen,” the farrier exclaimed.
“None of this makes a bit of sense,” Bobby said. “Dan is my best horse. He never startles. Never! There has to be an explanation.”
Bobby walked Dan back to the stable. He met Amy halfway. Her face showed the relief she felt. “What in the world happened, Amy?”
“Sylvia had just finished examining Dan and unhooked his halter. The groom bent over to move the mounting block Sylvia uses to reach his back and neck. Dan took off like someone had kicked him.”
“Why would he do that? That’s NOT how Dan acts.”
“I don’t know. Well, unless.”
Amy bit her lip. “Well. They claim that she probably scared the Pecheron we now call Pegasus. One of the grooms turned pale and almost passed out when she saw Dan take off.”
“Ghost?” Bobby asked.
Sheepishly, Amy replied, “yes, a ghost.”
“Except there are no such things as ghosts, Amy.”
Bobby led Dan into the barn. “Let’s cool him down and give him the day off,” he said. “We can’t have any more of this nonsense.”
The barn girl who was standing nearby could not contain herself. “It’s that little girl ghost, Mr. Bobby. She spooked the horses.”
Bobby stared at her. He opened his mouth and shut it. “I’m going to my office,” he said, turning on his heels. It made no sense. Finally, he entered some key words into the search engine of his computer. The results were too broad, so he half-heartedly typed, “Girl ghost on Anson Street”. The return prompt jerked him to attention.
The sad story unfolded on the screen. A six-year-old girl had met a tragic fate. In 1929, Milton Landry’s carriage horses were a well-bred stock. He trained and sold the horses and drove carriages for some of Charleston’s elite. Due to bad investments, Milton accumulated a good deal of debt.
One evening, he returned to the stable where two debt collectors awaited him. As the men dragged Milton from the carriage, Milton fought fiercely, and the men fell tangled among the horse’s legs. One horse pinned a brutish man with his hoof. The man removed his pistol and fired into the horse’s skull.
“Noooooo!” escaped from a small girl. In a blur of motion, she attached herself to the shooter’s leg. He pushed her away. She landed under the hooves of the second carriage horse, which had reared in fright. Milton Landry’s six-year-old daughter, Mary, died, her lungs punctured by the hooves of the horse she loved best.
Bobby walked out of the office. It was dusk. The crew finished their last chores and he wished them good night. As he pushed the last barn door closed, the old lift creaked above his head . . . or maybe it was a moan . . . Bobby couldn’t be sure. The quiet settled around him again, his spine relaxed. Then the barn door behind him blew open. He felt a sudden chill. As he spun around, he spied wispy white tendrils of mist floating out the door. No, it couldn’t be, could it?
Mary floated through the door. No more death.
Dan stopped his peaceful munching. Ears erect and forward, his head lifted sharply. Dan’s eyes fixed on the door, not a twitch in his entire body.
The girl was gone.
Kathy China lives in Sumter, South Carolina with her chef husband, a Siamese cat, and two horses. Born and raised in North Dakota, she moved to Sumter after college to pursue a career in law enforcement, primarily serving in the Mounted Patrol Division. For the past fifteen years she has been self-employed as a massage therapist, fitness trainer, and yoga instructor (now registered at 500-hour level.) Writing is a passion she pursues in her spare time.