Dark Days at Saddle Creek (Preview)
Alberta Simms studied the black clouds gathering overhead and hoped the rain would stay inside of them for just another few minutes. All day long the sky had swirled with indecision, but now it darkened with the inevitability of a massive downpour.
Easy does it, boy.
There it was again. The voice. Her heart quickened. She examined the crowd at the horse show, her eyes darting from one person to the next, alert to every facial movement and gesture. Nothing. Was she imagining things?
Twice now, she’d thought she’d heard a mental transmission, but both times she hadn’t been able to locate the origin of the voice. It was unique, somehow. Was it a human, and not an animal, that she’d heard? She set her jaw. Forget it, she told herself. If it’s real, it’ll come again.
Alberta, or Bird as she was known, heard a distant rumble of thunder. She wondered if her sister’s class would have to be cancelled. Now her fingers were crossed.
Determined to remain undistracted by the weather or the voice, Bird leaned on the white rail fence and refocused her attention on the action in the show ring. Her younger sister, Julia, was doing a great job of steering her chestnut pony around the course of jumps. Theirs was the fastest time so far, and all the rails were still up. Julia had talked of nothing but showing since her first-place finish at the Palston Classic in June. Now it was August, and they were back for the Summer Summit.
It was the last class of the day, and Julia was the last rider. The skies blackened dramatically as the pair made the final turn into a line of jumps. Small raindrops were beginning to fall.
Earlier that day, Bird and her formidable horse, Sundancer, had won their class, setting high expectations for the other riders from Saddle Creek Farm. Bird replayed the moment in her mind with considerable pleasure. It had been close to a perfect ride. Sunny was responsive and brave, and Bird was on her game. Horse and rider were totally synchronized — listening and moving and thinking as one.
After that, though, the entire day had felt odd — ominous, even, with the weight of humidity and the threat of rain hovering. Red-haired Kimberly and her mare, Moonlight Sonata, had gone off course and were whistled out. Liz and Pastor had crashed through a jump. But perhaps the barn’s luck was about to change. If Julia and Sabrina kept this up, there’d be two first-place ribbons for Saddle Creek Farm.
Sabrina, Julia’s pretty Welsh pony, was certainly intent on winning. Her tiny pointed ears strained forward and her mouth was tense with effort as she cantered over the blue and white oxer and took three quick strides to the red and green vertical. One stride, then over the yellow boards with her knees tucked up neatly under her chin. They landed safely and raced through the finish gate.
Julia’s face broke into a huge grin.
Bird slapped her sister’s calf when she trotted out of the ring. “Good job, Julia!” She gave Sabrina a pat on the neck. Good job, Sabrina! Did you have a little trouble on the far corner?
A huge flower popped up!
Bird smiled. A woman had opened her yellow umbrella just as Sabrina and Julia were cantering past. It might have seemed like a surprisingly big flower to the pony.
You did well to stay focused, Sabrina.
Think I’d spoil my ride because of a stupid flower?
Bird laughed out loud. Other horses would have spooked.
Julia slid off Sabrina and removed her helmet. “I wish Mom had stayed to watch that.”
Bird hugged her little sister. “She’ll wish she did when we tell her.”
Eva had been around earlier in the day, but “something had come up” and she’d left before Julia’s class. Bird snorted. Probably a manicure or a shoe sale. Maybe lunch with a gossipy friend.
Big drops of rain landed on their heads. Julia looked up at the sky. “It’s really starting now.”
And start it did. Thunder rolled and the clouds let loose their burden. All around, people hurried for cover. Umbrellas opened and horses were dragged into trailers. People crowded under trees, dashed for their vehicles, and ducked under overhangs. Within seconds, Bird and Julia were soaked to the skin.
“Let it rain!” yelled Julia as they ran for the trailer with the pony. “I had the best time of my life out there!”
“I think you won first,” called Bird, running beside her.
You think? We won for sure! corrected Sabrina.
Bird dropped the rear ramp of the horse trailer, and Sabrina trotted right up beside the other horses. The sisters jumped in, and together they stood dripping as the rain pounded on the aluminum roof.
“Holy,” said Julia. “I’m glad this waited ’til we finished.”
Bird nodded. “Yeah. Your ride would’ve been called with this thunder.”
The rain was coming down so hard that a curtain of water streamed down the trailer door opening, inches from the girls. Julia put out her hand and squealed as water sprayed everywhere.
“Bring it on,” laughed Bird. “We couldn’t get wetter if we tried!”
That’s just stupid, commented Sundancer. The big chestnut gelding stood on the other side of Sabrina. I was perfectly dry until now.
Suck it up, Sunny, answered Bird. A little water never hurt anybody.
Tell that to a cat!
Sundancer always took an animal’s point of view, Bird observed. Where is everybody?
Moonie and Pastor are here in the trailer. Duh.
I can see that, smartass. I meant Aunt Hannah, Liz, and Kimberly.
They’re in the truck.
Bird spoke aloud to Julia. “Let’s go for it. When I count to three, get out. We’ll close up the trailer, run to the truck, and beat the rush out of here.”
“And go home? Before the ribbons?”
Bird saw the disappointment on her sister’s face. “Okay, maybe we can wait here a little longer. Aunt Hannah knows where we are.” Their aunt owned and operated Saddle Creek Farm, and was also their coach.
Julia looked much happier. “Holy. It’s really pouring.”
Bird squinted her eyes and peered through the sheet of water falling off the trailer roof. All around them, vans were pulling out. The show was over, and except for the eight riders who’d placed in the last class, no one had any reason to stay. Bird looked over to the entrance: a long line of trucks, trailers, and cars was waiting to leave the grounds.
The rain began to abate as quickly as it had started. Within minutes it had completely stopped, and the sky began to clear.
“Bird? Julia?” Hannah’s worried face peeked around the corner of the trailer. “You look drowned!”
“I think I won, Aunt Hannah!” crowed Julia.
“Good girl. I’ll run down to the office and find out what’s going on,” said Hannah. “You girls change into your spare clothes before you start shivering, and don’t forget to rub Sabrina down.”
“I’ve got to tell Liz and Kimberly first!” Julia leapt off the trailer like a flying squirrel and dashed to the truck.
Bird slipped the saddle and bridle off Sabrina and carried them to the tack room at the front of the trailer. She placed the pony’s saddle on the rack and hung up the bridle, wet girth, and saddle pad. From the trunk she got out her old green sweatsuit, and, after peeling off her wet riding clothes, she stepped into the soft flannel and pulled her rubber boots over dry socks. Much better, Bird thought. She grabbed a big towel to dry off Sabrina and stepped out of the tack room.
Julia appeared just as Bird was leaving. “I forgot to pack dry clothes,” she said through chattering teeth.
“Here’s a wool cooler.” Bird rubbed Julia’s head with the towel and grabbed a soft horse blanket. She threw it over her sister’s shoulders before splashing through deep puddles to the back of the trailer.
Before she could get to work on Sabrina, Bird’s attention was drawn down the hill to a galloping horse. A teenaged girl with a lead shank and halter was chasing a handsome bay horse with mudsplattered legs. He must have broken free, Bird guessed. The girl’s face was red with exertion and contorted with frustration. Bird recognized her at once. It was Wanda, a groom for the professional trainer Dexter Pill.
Bird put her hands on her hips. What was Wanda thinking, she wondered. Horses never come to people who chase them, especially when those people are yelling. It’s too scary for them.
Just as she was deciding how best to help, Bird was startled by a clear mental message.
Easy. Settle down, boy.
That voice again! Where had it come from? It had an authority and a clarity that made her certain it had been transmitted by a person, not an animal. Bird was puzzled. She’d never heard a person do that before.
The horse’s eyes and nostrils widened. He stopped, surprised. She watched as a man appeared from the trailers. He casually stepped up to the horse and reached out his hand. The horse relaxed at his touch.
Although Wanda was still visibly upset, the crisis was over. She nodded her thanks to the man, slipped the halter over the runaway horse’s head, and led him back in the direction from which they’d come.
Bird looked at the man closely as he walked away. He intrigued her. He was slightly built and moved with a quiet athleticism. He wore jeans, white sneakers, and a green T-shirt. His unruly hair was jet black, and his skin was weathered. Who was he?
Bird had considered it a possibility that other people might communicate telepathically with animals, but actually witnessing this was a first.
Wait! she messaged. I want to meet you!
Bird threw the towel over Sabrina’s wet back and raced down the hill, tracking the man’s steps. She ran around the stall tents and remaining trailers looking for him, but he was gone. There was absolutely no sign that he’d ever been there at all. Bird wondered if he was in one of the trucks or trailers that were moving out of the parking lot. If so, it was too late.