In the Beginning
(If you hate introductions of any kind – and I get it! – you can skip this and go straight to Chapter One below.)
It recounts my son’s diagnosis with this devastating disease, and the steps he took to achieve remission without the use of drugs and their horrible side effects – one of which is ulcerative colitis!
As he valiantly fought to get his life back, I prayed incessantly to that patron saint of lost causes, St. Jude, for his intercession on my son’s behalf. My pleas did not fall on deaf ears: St. Jude really came through for us.
I continue to be astounded at the number of hits for that post. More than a year later it is still by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written.
Which tells me that many people suffer from this embarrassing disease – or another inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s – and are desperate to achieve remission and healing.
I wrote this novella after witnessing how strong and self-disciplined my son became while battling his debilitating illness. It inspired me to write a story where the protagonist has ulcerative colitis (UC) and is, as far as I know, the only cool guy in fiction with an autoimmune disease!
This tale is inspired by real events. If you or someone you know has an IBD such as UC or Crohn’s, I hope Riding Out the Devil gives them optimism about achieving remission. And please read the information at the end for more help in overcoming your symptoms.
Hilary at Rubesca4@gmail.com
Chapter One: A Phone Call
The black gelding side-stepped vehemently as Jack rode him past the tarpaulin.
Gusts of wind blew underneath the blue plastic, draped over the shavings bay outside the arena. The crackling surface ballooned menacingly and threatened to take flight over the terrified animal.
Two days ago, Rolando’s owner had brought his horse to Jack because the Thoroughbred was afraid of his own shadow.
Assessing him with his owner in the saddle, Jack had noticed how the rider clamped with his legs and yanked upwards on the reins whenever the gelding became frightened.
He’d asked the man to ride past the bleachers beside the huge sand arena. Ten tiers high and made of metal, they reflected the sun so brightly that Rolando shied violently away from them.
This earned him a sharp jerk in the mouth and a hard smack on the shoulder with the whip. “Quit that!” his owner yelled.
The horse threw his head in the air, eyes wild with fear. Jack had seen all he needed: the horse was as scared of his rider as of outside stimuli.
Today was Jack’s first session on the Thoroughbred: he’d deliberately chosen to ride in this windy weather, knowing the tarp would frighten the gelding.
When the animal leapt away from it, Jack felt him tense again, expecting his rider’s wrath. It didn’t come. Jack acted as if nothing were amiss and asked the horse to continue trotting on the same circle.
The gelding’s relief was palpable. He softened in Jack’s hands and moved forwards.
Jack thought for the umpteenth time: It’s the owner I need to train, not the horse!
At the fourth attempt, Rolando passed by the tarp with a mere twitch of an ear towards it. Jack was pleased: soon the horse would be ready for the next training phase.
His cell rang.
It is the curse of a horse trainer that he has to talk to his clients as well as ride their horses, and this often means answering the phone while on horseback. Patting Rolando, who hadn’t reacted to the ring tone, he pulled the cell out of its holster clipped to his breeches.
“Jack Harper speaking.”
“Hello, Jack. It’s been seventeen years today.” The quiet voice was unmistakable.
Her call came once every twelve months – far too often, in his opinion. Jack, it’s been one year now – five years now – ten years and on and on. When was it going to stop?
“Who cares? Let it go!” he snapped and hung up.
At least he wouldn’t hear from her again for another twelve months.
She was crafty – using a different phone number every time. When each anniversary arrived he’d answer the phone, having long forgotten about her. It was galling to be caught out like that.
He replaced the phone in its holster and picked up the reins. The break proved useful for Rolando: he rounded his back nicely, carrying Jack calmly past the tarp several more times.
Jack gently scratched the gelding’s high withers. “Good work, pal. Let’s go for a short trail ride.”
It had taken him the first four of his seventeen years in the U.S. to learn American equine lingo. In his native England, you went for a ‘hack’ when you took your horse into the countryside.
Yet he never lost the English accent so carefully cultivated at boarding school, where the monks rapped you on the knuckles if you didn’t make your bed correctly or were late for class or handed in untidy homework. Tough rules, but they taught him self-discipline.
He rode on a loose rein along a path through the woods. Rolando’s ears were pricked, alert for danger. Jack stroked the animal’s dark neck and sat deeper in the saddle, thinking about that phone call.
He hated being reminded of how close the two of them had been before it all fell apart. She was still the only interesting woman who ever understood and accepted his situation. Why did she have to intrude on his life every twelve months? The past was the past – it couldn’t be undone.
A startled deer took off into the bushes and Rolando raised his head in alarm, his body stiffening. “You’re fine, pal, that deer’s more afraid of you than you are of him. Trust me, buddy.”
His mantra with a worried horse was forward – give the animal something else to focus on: he urged the gelding into a stronger walk.
But Rolando was reluctant to move so Jack flexed the horse to the left and asked for a lateral step to the right, away from the threat. The gelding complied and his body softened as he bent around Jack’s left leg. He was now listening to his rider and marched on with lowered neck.
It gratified Jack when a horse reacted so promptly to his cues. Being a Thoroughbred helped: the breed was usually very smart and Rolando fit the mold.
By the time the duo headed back to the barn, Jack was back in horse trainer mode and the phone call was already losing its power.
Chapter Two: Another Phone Call
Jack sat in his favorite armchair, holding a bottle of gluten free beer while Katie, the Golden Retriever, lay on his feet.
Felicia had left a container in the fridge for him to heat up for dinner. The house-keeper knew his dietary requirements inside out, and he could rely on her to cook only what he could safely eat.
The phone in his holster rang once more and Jack pulled it out, intending to make a note of the caller and get back to them after he’d had a few minutes to unwind.
But it was his dad, in England.
He frowned. His father never called. “Dad? Anything wrong?”
“Jack, it’s your mother. She had a heart attack last night and I’m afraid she didn’t make it. She died early this morning.”
Jack inhaled sharply.
“I’m so sorry, Dad.” He knew what was coming next.
“It would be great if you could come home. I know how busy you are, and all that – “
Jack hesitated. He did not want to return to England. Mum was dead, and flying back wasn’t going to change that.
Joseph Harper’s cracked voice said, “I understand if you’d rather not.”
I’d much rather not! But Dad’s hurting, you heartless swine!
He forced himself to ask, “When’s her funeral?”
It was going to be one of those Catholic affairs and Dad knew how much he loathed that religious crap.
Jack knew his father hadn’t wanted to annoy his wayward son with two phone calls. Instead of calling as soon as his mother died, Joseph Harper had waited until after arranging the funeral with his precious Catholic church in order to tell him everything in one conversation.
Boy, was this inconvenient! Today was Monday and he had three horses in training, whose owners insisted that Jack personally work with them. Plus they’d given him only two weeks to ‘fix’ them.
People always expected quick miracles! They had no patience, which is why their horses developed problems in the first place…
Spinnet, an opinionated chestnut Trakhener mare, was a witch on the ground, kicking and biting and striking out. If only she’d been handled with sensitivity, instead of being brushed down hard, having the saddle slammed onto her back and the girth immediately buckled so tight she couldn’t breathe.
He so frequently wanted to scream, “Horses aren’t machines, people!”
The big flea bitten gray, Goliath, was refusing oxers and it was easy to see why. He was only five years old and already being rushed at 5’ 6” fences with wide spreads, because at 17 hands he looked more physically mature than he really was. What he needed was several months off jumping altogether followed by slow retraining. But Jack was having a hard time convincing his owner of that fact.
Finally there was Rolando, but thankfully the gentle gelding was coming round fast.
“You still there, son?” his father’s Gloucestershire accent cut into Jack’s thoughts. “Think you can make it back by Friday?”
“Um – ” Jack thought fast.
An overnight flight on Wednesday would gave him two days to rearrange the horses’ training schedules and explain to the owners that this was a family emergency. He’d have to offer them a discount if they agreed to let his right hand man Luca take on their horses in his absence.
His plane would land at London Heathrow on Thursday morning. After only one uncomfortable night with Dad, he could fly back the next evening after the funeral.
Knowing he would be flying home that same day would make the funeral Mass more bearable.
“I’ll organize a flight and call you back with the details. Can you meet me at Heathrow?”
“Of course.” His father added brokenly: “And thank you, son.”
“Sure thing. Bye, Dad.”
Jack winced. His father shouldn’t feel the need to thank him for going home at this difficult time.
He pressed the ‘End Call’ button in a daze.
Mum was dead.
Today had begun and ended with death.