She did not like the Big Man. Bitty Blue was nervous whenever he came to the stables, smelling of smoke and anger. His hands were rough over her flanks, and hard on her bit. His voice always seemed too loud. When he took her and Popeye and Madrone out for practice or play, Bitty Blue tried to stay calm and ready for the game, but it was difficult around the Big Man.
Popeye didn’t like him either. Bitty Blue had seen Popeye stop too fast and throw the Big Man—a bad, bad thing for a good pony to do. The big man had gotten up slowly, and yelled a lot then, switching Popeye before the next chukker. Bitty Blue knew Popeye had done it on purpose, and she didn’t blame him. He threw him twice again in that game, and that night, one of the grooms had come and taken Popeye away.
Now there was Hank, the big male bay in Popeye’s stall, and he went with her and Madrone out to the field.
The day was hot, and Bitty Blue hoped she would be first on the string for the game. First slot meant the grass was still smooth and the game quick. The air on the grounds would smell of freshness instead of sweat and anger. She followed her stable mates out to the posts, and chuffed the afternoon air, glad to be outside. The groom walked her, and warmed her up with a few quick sprints along the trot path, putting her in good spirits.
The Big Man took Madrone first. Bitty Blue stamped nervously at her post, breathing in the scent of the game, and pleased to catch the scent of the Quick Man nearby. The Big Man often played against the Quick Man, and the Quick Man’s ponies were good opponents.
Bitty Blue knew them by sight: Reynaldo, Edna and Hot Dog. Reynaldo was fearless; a good charger. Edna was slower, but good at cornering, and Reynaldo had a pivot that put him where opponents could never find him. The Quick Man rode them all well, and talked to them encouragingly; Bitty Blue had heard him do so during the games.
Bitty Blue chuffed a little, pleased. It would be a good game, and afterwards, the Quick Man and the Carrot Girl would share sugar with all of the ponies—the way they always did.
It was not a good game. The ground was soft, and gave way too much for good running. Bitty slipped around during her chukker, and the Big Man yanked on her bit angrily. She tried to follow his leans, but he changed too quickly, shifting his weight and keeping her nervously trying to anticipate his direction.
He also squeezed her ribs too hard with his knees, and Bitty Blue wheezed a little, trying to breathe.
“Hey, ease up, Jackie-boy; she’s not a mechanical ride in front of a grocery store,” Bitty Blue heard the Quick Man call.
“Just shut up and play,” Stark,” the Big Man answered. “Save the small talk for happy hour.”
After that the game got longer, and the sun, hotter. Bitty Blue chuffed under the weight and pique of the Big Man, doing her best to follow his lead. She knew he wouldn’t switch her out; both Hank and Madrone were exhausted now, and Quick Man’s team was ahead.
Then she stumbled. Before Bitty Blue could straighten up, the Big Man yanked on her bit, throwing her further off-balance. She staggered, and went down on one knee hard. The pain made her snort helplessly, and the Big Man cursed, sliding out of the saddle to grab her bridle and shake her head as she slowly rose up.
That didn’t help, and Bitty Blue shied. The Big Man was about to yell again, but a sudden whizzing sound—a familiar sound--flew past Bitty Blue’s head. The mallet swing hit the Big Man’s hand and he yelped, letting go of the bridle. “Shit, Stark are you insane? That’s my HAND!”
The field was quiet, and Bitty Blue struggled to get up again, doing it slowly. She saw Quick Man slide off of Reynaldo and stride over, smelling furious. He took his mallet and shoved the head of it under Big Man’s chin. “You’re damned lucky I didn’t go for your nose, Jack. This entire game you’ve been treating your mounts like dogmeat, and if nobody else in this club is going to speak up then I will. They’re good horses, trying to do their job. Stop grinding the spirit out of them, man.”
“They’re just equipment,” The Big Man shot back, and Bitty Blue heard frustration and hate in his voice. “I don’t get sentimental about equipment, Stark.”
“Is that how you see them? Because that doesn’t surprise me one damned bit. Potts, cut Mr. Roberts a check for his entire string. Whatever he wants. Immediately.”
Bitty Blue turned her head; Quick Man came closer, and ran a gloved hand along her neck, his touch soothing. “Hey baby. Let’s get someone to look at that pretty knee of yours, okay? Think you can come with me, hmmm?”
The officials came over, and the Carrot Girl too, and lots of people were all talking at once, but Bitty Blue stood quietly with Quick Man while he stroked her nose and whispered kind things in her closest ear.
After the vet came and did things to make the knee feel much better, Bitty Blue was happy. Quick Man and Carrot Girl came to visit at the stable, bringing good things to eat and talking in low voices.
“She’s not going to be able to play again; not to club regulation standards, Tony.”
“She won’t have to. Wasn’t Julian asking us for a donation to the Animal Therapy program out at the hospital?”
“Yes, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking of money,” the Carrot Girl was saying as she handed over more of the crunchy good things. “Not that it’s a bad idea—”
“It’s a great idea,” Quick Man murmured. “Come on--this girl is as gentle as they come, Pepper—look at her. Did you see the way Roberts was yanking on her bit out there? I should have taken HIS fucking knee out.”
“Yes. And I think as long as our pretty acquisition here has board and care provided for, Julian will be delighted to have her. There are a lot of kids who’ve never been close to a horse before,” Carrot Girl said quietly.
She was petting too, and Bitty Blue loved the feel of her soft hands running through her forelock.
“What about the other two ponies?” Carrot Girl asked. Bitty Blue shifted her ears and moved closer to the Quick Man, liking the scent of him.
“Both good ponies; I can afford to keep them and see if anyone in the club makes an offer. I think there are a few people interested.”
“Now that Jack Roberts has had his membership revoked, yes,” Carrot Girl was saying softly. “They’ll probably be snapped up. You didn’t have to do this, Tony—but I’m so proud you did.”
Both of them got quiet, and closer to each other. Bitty Blue waited for the Quick Man to kiss the Carrot Girl, but he didn’t.
“Yeah, well I take damsels in distress seriously,” he murmured. Still, he did not kiss her.
Bitty Blue decided to fix that. With a quick, firm nose nudge between his shoulders, she pushed Quick Man into Carrot Girl, hoping he would understand and forgive. He stumbled, tumbled into her, but Carrot Girl caught him and Bitty Blue watched cheerfully as kissing—much kissing, in fact--did happen.
Swishing her tail happily, and nosing through the hay underfoot for spilled good things, Bitty Blue was content in the thought that while she might not play out on the big field anymore, she still had a few good moves left.