Animal control workers had already begun guiding weak horses onto trailers, while others unloaded equipment to transport the dead. As she stood shivering in the rain while answering the sheriff's questions, a shout pierced the melancholy air. "Hey! This one is still alive!"
Penny dashed back to the stalls, where an animal control officer held his hand against the fallen horse's spotted nose.
"Are you sure?" she asked eagerly.
The young officer looked up at her, smiling. Rain dripped from his blue cap.
"Yes. I can feel air coming from his nostrils, and I can hear a faint heartbeat."
"Oh, thank God!" she said, fighting back tears.
"Ma'am, do you know the owner of this farm?" the sheriff asked.
Penny heard his question, but she couldn't take her eyes off the horse. He was alive! The sweet creature was still alive.
"Ma'am?" The sheriff looked at Penny's face and tried again. "Do you know this horse?"
For the second time in less than an hour, Penny dropped to her knees beside the animal.
"I do," she said, gently touching the horse's face, realizing she would likely never see him again. "His name is Joey."
Kim Tschirret had no idea if she was doing the right thing. She anxiously balled her hands into fists in her jacket pockets and chewed her bottom lip as she waited in the barn.
"I'm so nervous," she whispered to her friend Barb Foulkrod, who had generously agreed to make the early morning drive from North Carolina to Virginia to pick up the horse Kim couldn't stop talking about. When they arrived, Tom Comer, the owner of the sprawling Virginia farm, greeted them warmly. Tom had his own horses but also fostered animals in need for the Equine Rescue League.
Barb laid a calming hand on Kim's back. She and Kim, both in their early forties and both wearing their blonde hair in low ponytails, could have easily passed for sisters.
"Trust your gut, Kim," she whispered back.
Trust. Barb made it sound so easy.
In theory, giving a permanent home to a recently rescued horse was a no-brainer. After all, the horse therapy ranch Kim owned in Raleigh needed more horses. But this horse? Maybe she had been too rash.
When the stable door opened, out stepped the most beautiful, albeit terribly thin, horse Kim had ever seen. Her breath caught as she inhaled. He was magnificent. Head held high. Creamy blond mane blowing in the gentle breeze. He looked positively regal.
"Oh my..." she breathed out.
She had seen Appaloosas before. In fact, there was another one waiting impatiently in the borrowed horse trailer parked in the driveway. She had always loved the breed, with their richly spotted coats, freckled noses, and humanlike eyes, but she had never seen one like this before. A leopard Appaloosa, his white coat was dotted with hundreds of black ink spots. Smaller ones packed close together in the front, while larger ones spread out around the back. His markings reminded Kim of a Dalmatian's coat.
"Well, here he is," Tom announced. "Meet Joey."
Kim and Barb slowly approached, and Kim gently held her hand under the horse's nose in a nonthreatening greeting. "Hi, Joey. It's nice to meet you."
The Appaloosa breathed in her scent, then exhaled his greeting. His pink-and-black-freckled lips rooted around her closed fist, looking for hidden tidbits. Kim reached up to stroke his large cheek, her index finger stopping on several different-sized spots—a large one with a deep black center surrounded by a lighter ring, a medium-sized pear-shaped one, and finally several small ones that all blended together, turning a patch of his white coat gray.
"You are so beautiful," she said, moving closer.