“EASY, WINGS,” HALEY DUNCAN MURMURED, shortening the reins to stop her pony from leaping into a canter as they crossed through an open gate into a large pasture. “We’re supposed to be doing trot sets this morning, remember? That means we need to actually, you know, trot.”
The pony’s left ear swiveled back toward her, then focused once again on the large sycamore log lying halfway up a gentle slope just ahead. The log’s dappled bark was further dappled by shade from the rising sun hitting the tree line outside the pasture fence, making it look odd, but Haley knew that Wings wasn’t staring at the log
because he was afraid. He wanted to jump it!
Haley smiled as Wings trotted sideways in protest against her snug rein. This field was one of their favorite places to practice cross-country jumping. Haley, with help from her uncle and cousins, had built several sturdy practice jumps there over the past couple of years, and she couldn’t count the number of times she and Wings had schooled over their handmade cross-country course—sometimes with only wild birds and rabbits for company, like now, and other times dodging the feeder calves that rotated through this and several other pastures on her family’s Wisconsin farm.
Wings snorted and tossed his head. His trot got springier as he tried again to move forward into a canter. It was obvious that he thought jumping was a much better idea than boring trot sets.
“Oh, all right, you convinced me,” Haley said with a laugh. One of the things she loved about the lively Chincoteague pony was that he never kept his opinions to himself. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to do just one. . . .”
She loosened the reins and the pony immediately surged into a canter, his gaze fixed on the log. Haley
grinned as they sailed over with at least a foot to spare. Wings loved jumping as much as she did, which made them a great team in their chosen sport of eventing. The feeling of galloping across a field and sailing over a jump, the thrill of flying through the air, totally at one with her horse, was what had gotten Haley hooked on the sport in the first place.
But by now, Haley had been eventing long enough to know that loving to jump wasn’t enough. They’d never make it above beginner novice level if they spent all their riding time goofing off and jumping logs just for the heck of it, let alone make it to the top of the sport, as Haley dreamed of doing one day.
Wings was already looking at the next jump, a stack of straw bales. But Haley brought him back to a trot and turned him in the opposite direction.
“Sorry, boy.” She gave him a pat. “We have work to do. We both need to be fit enough not to embarrass ourselves in front of Zina Charles in a few weeks. Besides, we don’t have much time this morning—I still have chores to do before school.”
She grimaced, suddenly remembering that she’d promised to take care of both Jake’s and Danny’s morning chores today in addition to her own. Not that she minded—every time she did her cousins’ chores, it was money in her pocket. And she still needed to save up more if she wanted to make it to that clinic.
She still could hardly believe that Zina Charles was holding a clinic so close. Living out in the middle of nowhere, as her friend Tracey called it, Haley knew she was lucky that she only had to haul half an hour to the closest local eventing trainer. And now one of the superstars of the sport was coming to a farm just forty minutes away!
From the first moment she’d heard about it, Haley had been determined to ride in that clinic—no matter what it took. She wasn’t afraid of hard work, and she’d barely noticed the extra chores until school had started a couple of weeks earlier. But these days she had to set her alarm early to get everything done, and this particular Tuesday morning she was especially tired, since her babysitting job the night before hadn’t ended until almost ten p.m.
Haley yawned and took both reins in one hand so
she could push back the sleeve of her windbreaker. That was another thing that had changed over the past week or two—now that it was September, the weather was already turning, with a definite nip in the air at dawn. As Haley glanced down at her watch, there was a sudden flutter of feathers in an overgrown patch of weeds just ahead. A bird flew out with a squawk, and Wings leaped sideways.
“Hey!” Haley exclaimed as she clenched her legs around the pony to keep her seat. She’d lost both her stirrups, but she stayed centered in the saddle. “You goofball,” she added with a laugh as the pony used the spook as an excuse to break into a canter again, tossing in a small buck for good measure. Haley rode through it easily—it was far from the first buck she’d sat through on Wings—and shoved her feet back into the stirrups.
A moment later they were trotting calmly again. But only for a moment. That quick glance at her watch had told Haley that they were running late. With one last wistful look at the inviting field full of jumps, Haley turned Wings around and kicked him into a brisk canter, heading for home.
“Good boy.” Haley gave Wings a pat as she slipped off his halter. “I’ll see you after school.”
The pony nudged at her, clearly hoping for one more chunk of carrot. When none was forthcoming, he turned and ambled off toward the trio of sturdy quarter horses grazing at the far end of the pasture. Haley was glad to see them out there—that meant someone else had turned them out, which meant one fewer chore on her list. Probably Uncle Mike, she figured. No way would the boys bother when they were paying her.
Haley hurried back along the dirt path to the tidy farmyard. At one end stood the barn, its big double doors thrown open to the morning sun. Directly opposite was the rustic white-painted picket gate leading into the back garden of the family’s rambling farmhouse. In between, a dozen laying hens and a handsome wyandotte rooster were pecking for bugs and bits of grain in the hard-packed dirt barnyard—Haley had opened the henhouse door on her way to get Wings earlier. Several cats were lounging around the yard, and a portly beagle mix was snuffling at
the dirt, probably trying to gobble up whatever bugs were there before the chickens got to them.
As Haley headed for the barn, a different dog trotted out to greet her. Haley loved all animals, but Bandit was her favorite of the gang of cats and dogs on the farm, and he seemed to know it. He was a lean, restless collie mix that had wandered onto a neighbor’s property a few years earlier and made a nuisance of himself chasing their sheep. Knowing that Haley and her uncle both had a soft heart when it came to dogs, the neighbor had offered him to them instead of dropping him off at the county pound—or something worse.
“Hey, buddy.” Haley scratched around the dog’s ruff. Bandit wiggled from head to toe, his long, furry tail thumping against Haley’s legs. Then he pulled away, dashing over and grabbing a stick. He brought it to Haley, tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur.
Haley knew she should keep moving if she didn’t want Jake to leave for school without her. But she couldn’t resist tossing the stick a few times. Bandit chased it with gleeful abandon, barely seeming to notice the chickens squawking
as they scattered before him, or the black-and-white cat giving him a dirty look when he almost stepped on her.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Haley told the dog after a few throws. “Sorry, buddy.”
Stifling a yawn, she stood and watched for a moment as two of the hens squabbled over a tasty caterpillar. Bandit sat down on her left foot, as usual wanting to be as close to her as possible. Haley smiled at the familiar feel of his bony rump atop her boot. She couldn’t imagine life without Bandit any more than she could imagine not having Wings.
And in a way, the two animals had a lot in common even aside from their energetic natures and devotion to her. The spunky pinto Chincoteague pony had also come from a neighbor, though a different one. He’d been the Smiths’ daughter’s barrel-racing pony, shipped in from the East Coast as a five-year-old after running away with a series of young kids. When Leah Smith had gone off to college after four or five successful years running barrels, her parents hadn’t wanted to sell her pony. Besides, how many people in rural Wisconsin would want a Chincoteague
pony with only one speed—fast—and a habit of bucking when he didn’t get his way? But Haley had adored Wings from the first time she’d ridden him, and the neighbors had agreed to an indefinite free lease, which meant that Wings could live with Haley for as long as she wanted and come back to the Smiths if she didn’t want him anymore. Not that Haley could imagine that ever happening—Wings was definitely a keeper!
Haley’s cousins and some of her friends at school still liked to make fun of her choice of sports and breeds, since most of the horse people in these parts rode Western on stocky quarter horses, paints, or Appaloosas. But Haley was in heaven. She’d read and reread Misty of Chincoteague so many times she could hardly believe that the cute little pinto in her pasture with the wing-shaped markings across his back was a real, live Chincoteague pony who’d made the swim across the channel from Assateague Island as a foal. It was just a bonus that he jumped as if he’d been born and bred for it!
As Haley was thinking about that, the sudden blast of a car horn nearby made her jump. Despite the early
hour, traffic was already zooming by on the busy country highway just a few dozen yards beyond the farm’s sturdy woven-wire perimeter fence. Haley yawned again and rubbed her face, then gave Bandit one last pat and got back to work. Riding had woken her up for a while, but yet another early morning was catching up with her. Still, it would all be worth it in a few weeks when she and Wings got to that clinic.
A few minutes later Haley was struggling to balance a wheelbarrow full of manure and open the gate when her seventeen-year-old cousin Jake wandered into the barnyard, hands shoved into the pockets of his baggy jeans.
“Get the gate for me, will you?” Haley called. The muck pile was outside the perimeter fence to make it easier for her uncle to get to with the tractor. That meant opening and closing the sturdy mesh gate for every trip out there so that none of the animals escaped onto the busy road.
Jake grinned, lounging against the hitching rail in the middle of the yard. “Why should I? I’m paying you to do all my chores this morning, remember?”
“Just do it!” Haley said, knowing he would.
Jake was like a brother to her, for better and for worse. So was his younger brother, Danny. And Aunt Veronica and Uncle Mike were like parents to Haley—the only ones she remembered, mostly, since her own parents had died in a car crash when Haley was just four years old. Her only memories of them were hazy and dim—her father swinging her up into a battered Western saddle atop an ancient quarter horse for her very first ride; her mother laughing and dancing in the kitchen; the three of them having a picnic in a park in Chicago. Sometimes those memories made Haley feel a little bit sad, as if she should remember more of the four years she’d had with her parents. But her aunt and uncle treated her like one of their own, and that was mostly good enough for her.
Jake opened the gate, shoving Bandit back with his foot to keep the dog from following Haley outside. She dumped the wheelbarrow with one expert move, then hurried back to the gate. Jake swung it open again and then latched it behind her. “Thanks,” she said breathlessly.
“Sure.” Jake watched her shove the wheelbarrow back into the shed. “Already finish the stalls?”
“Only half.” Haley checked her watch. “I’ll have to do the rest after school—I still need to check water and feed the chickens. Oh, and I haven’t gathered eggs yet. . . .”
“You’re making me tired just watching you.” To prove it, Jake let out a wide yawn and leaned against a fence post. “I hope this silly English riding thing you’re going to is worth it.”
“It will be.” Haley didn’t bother rising to the bait about “silly English riding.” She’d heard it all before, and she didn’t really care what anyone thought of her sport. “Zina Charles is the best of the best. She was short-listed for the US Olympic Team last time, and she’ll probably make it next time. Plus, I hear she’s an amazing trainer. Someone posted on one of the online eventing forums that he’d learned more from a one-day clinic with Zina than he did in a year’s worth of lessons with anyone else!”
“Hmm.” Jake didn’t look impressed. “Anyway, Mom sent me out to check on you. I’m leaving in twenty minutes, so don’t be late.”
Without waiting for a response, he loped off toward
the house. Haley checked her watch again. She knew Jake probably wouldn’t actually leave without her, at least not if her aunt was paying attention. But Aunt Veronica wouldn’t be happy if Haley made them all late for school. . . .
Minutes later Haley had fed and watered the chickens, topped off the big stock tank in the horses’ pasture, and grabbed that morning’s eggs from the henhouse. Bandit shadowed her the whole time, his fringed tail wagging.
“Here you go, buddy,” Haley said, quickly dumping some kibble into a couple of shallow pans in the barn aisle.
Bandit dove for the food, while the beagle mix and a couple of other dogs raced over to join in. The cats watched with interest, though none of them moved until Haley poured their food into several dishes on top of the big wooden cabinet in the barn office, where the dogs couldn’t reach it.
Hurrying out of the office, Haley paused, tempted to grab the broom leaning near the door. But she didn’t have time to sweep right now—that would have to wait until after school too, unless Aunt Veronica did it for her before then. Feeling slightly guilty for leaving chores undone, she
raced into the house. She grabbed a waffle off the platter on the table, wolfing it down dry as she sprinted up the creaky steps to her small bedroom overlooking the back garden.
As she was pulling on her school clothes, Haley wandered over to look at the flyer pinned to the bulletin board over her desk. It was the information sheet she’d received in the mail after sending in her deposit for the clinic. There was a picture of Zina Charles at the top, and below that were the time, location, and contact info for the clinic.
Haley finished yanking her shirt on over her head, then reached out and touched the flyer with her fingertips. “I’ll see you soon, Zina,” she whispered with a smile.
Glancing down, she noticed her laptop lying on her desk where she’d dumped it the afternoon before. She hadn’t touched it since then, thanks to that babysitting job. Which meant she hadn’t logged on to the Pony Post in almost twenty-four hours.
The Pony Post was a private message board Haley had started along with three other girls. She considered the other members among her very best friends, even though the four of them had never met in person. Maddie
Martinez lived in California, Nina Peralt in New Orleans, and Brooke Rhodes in Maryland, just a short distance across the Virginia state line from Chincoteague. The four of them might never have met except for one thing—they all loved and rode Chincoteague ponies. The Pony Post was a place where they could share that interest, along with photos and stories about their ponies and the rest of their lives.
When Haley logged on to the Pony Post, she found several new posts from the others. She skimmed them as she pulled on her socks. Most were just the usual chitchat about the other girls’ ponies and such, but a few were aimed at Haley.
[MADDIE] Hey Haley, thought of u today—Ms. Emerson offered to take some of us from the barn to watch a big local three-day event as a field trip! I told everyone I know someone who events, and they were all totes impressed!
[NINA] Sounds fab, Mads! Just think—someday
it’ll be Haley riding in those big events. We can say we knew her when!
[BROOKE] Have u saved up enough for the ZC clinic yet, Haley? I know u were worried about that. It’s coming up pretty soon, right?
[NINA] But we know you can do it! You’ll make it to that clinic and blow ZC away! She’ll probably want to hire u as her groom and apprentice.
[MADDIE] & she’ll prolly be so impressed w/Wings that she’ll try to buy him so she can ride him in the next Olympics!
[BROOKE] But Haley will never sell—she & Wings are a team!!!
[MADDIE] Of course she won’t sell. I’m just saying. Anyway, Haley, check in when u can and let us know what’s up and how we can help!
Haley smiled. Maybe nobody around here understood how excited she was to ride with Zina Charles. But at least her Pony Post friends were just as thrilled about it as she was!
She clicked open a text box, thinking about how to respond. Just then she heard her aunt hollering her name.
Oops. Haley realized it was time to go. Writing back to her Pony Post friends would have to wait a little longer.
“Coming!” Haley shouted, tucking the laptop under her arm and heading for the stairs.