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Authors: Bonnie Bryant

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BOOK: Cutting Horse
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The girls had a quick conference and decided that only Stevie would go with John. Two riders would attract far less attention than four. And by staying behind, Lisa and Carole could make excuses for John’s absence if anyone asked where he was. John told Stevie to saddle up her horse. “I’m assuming you’ll be riding your usual mount?” John inquired pointedly.

Her hazel eyes flashing happily, Stevie played along. “Yes, I think I’ll take Stewball. You never know when his cutting abilities are going to come in handy.”

As soon as the horses were ready, Stevie and John mounted up. Lisa noticed that John’s saddlebags and backpack were bulging. Obviously, the materials for the dye were inside. She and Carole gave Stevie and John the thumbs-up signal and watched them jog away from the stables.

“I want to hurry so that if anyone sees us, it will only be for a moment or two,” John called back over his shoulder. “That way there’ll be less chance of anyone noticing that one of our horses is a pinto—a pinto who’s going to come back as a chestnut.”

“Hear that, boy?” Stevie asked Stewball. “You’re about to get the beauty treatment of your lifetime.”

Instead of taking the usual trail toward Parson’s Rock, John made a sharp right at the trailhead and headed in
the opposite direction. Jogging and loping when the footing was good, they reached a small creek in about half an hour. Stevie was beside herself with excitement. “I feel like a real horse rustler!” she said. “It’s too good to be true.”

John was all concentration. “Well, most rustlers probably have a lookout person, so you can be it. I have to ask you to wait over there,” he said, pointing to a large boulder. “I doubt anyone’s going to come this way at this hour, but yell if you see anyone approaching.”

Stevie agreed. Normally she would have tried to finagle a way to go with John, but Lisa had specifically mentioned the night before that they shouldn’t try to find out the ingredients of John’s concoction. She felt it was important that he be able to keep it a secret.

“I’m going to take both horses down the creek where it’s shallower,” John explained. “Tex, here, as my pack-horse—he’s got the supplies—and Stewball, for obvious reasons. I need water for the dye. We should be back in an hour.”

“We’d better synchronize our watches,” Stevie said, imitating his superserious tone.

John raised his eyebrows skeptically.

“In movies, the criminals
synchronize their watches!” Stevie insisted.

“All right, all right!” John said. Under his breath he added, “This
for Hollywood, after all.”

Their watches set, John led the horses away, and Stevie scrambled up the bank to her position behind the boulder.

The wait was pure agony. The minutes ticked by. Stevie sat, then stood. She counted birds flying overhead. She recited the parts of the horse. She made a Christmas wish list, even though Christmas was six months away. She sat down again. Then she looked at her watch. Exactly fourteen minutes had elapsed. “Aa—” She was about to scream, but then she realized she couldn’t, or John might think someone was coming. She stood up again, and, pacing in front of the boulder, she started to sing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

When an hour and six minutes had gone by, she heard a familiar whinny. She sprang out from behind the rock—and saw an utterly unfamiliar horse. It was Stewball, but he was a chestnut! The transformation was unbelievable. “John, you’re a miracle worker!” Stevie screamed. Now was definitely not a time for understatement.

John smiled a bit sheepishly. “It was nothing.”

“Nothing? Are you kidding? It’s amazing!” Stevie said. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”

, it was nothing.”

, Stevie thought,
let him be Mr. Modest about it. The point is: The plan’s going to work!
“Can I touch the dye?” she asked.

“Sure, it won’t come off,” said John. “But we’d better be getting back. Lisa and Carole will be wondering where we are, and I’ve got real chores to do.”

Gingerly patting Stewball on the neck, Stevie swung back into the saddle. On the ride back to the barn, she kept leaning forward and back to stare at Stewball’s previously white patches. Up close, she could see a vague difference in the shade of the chestnut that had been white and the real chestnut patches, but it was nothing the camera would pick up twenty, ten, or even five feet away. In spite of her promise to Lisa, Stevie was aching to ask John what had gone into the dye. Somehow she managed to keep her word. She did make a mental note to try to research American Indian dyeing techniques in her school library come fall. There was no telling how many ways such a powerful dye could come in handy for pranks and practical jokes.

had almost the same reaction as Stevie. They stared at Stewball in shock. “John, this is—it’s—it’s beautiful,” Lisa breathed.

“I’m glad you said ‘it’s’ and not ‘he’s,’ ” Stevie said loyally,
“because I, for one, think Stewball was beautiful before, in his natural state.”

“What’s funny is that he doesn’t look anything like Sir Prize,” said Carole, “even dyed the same color. Any horseman or horsewoman could tell the difference in a second; the horses have completely different conformation. Stewball’s back is shorter, his neck isn’t as broad, he—”

“Yes, Carole?” Stevie interrupted. She knew that when Carole got going about horsey stuff, she could go on forever.

“Oh, right. What I was going to say is that luckily the director won’t notice the swap in a million years.”

“Let’s hope you’re right,” Lisa said. For some reason, she felt more cautious about the success of the plan than Stevie or Carole.

“I wouldn’t worry about the director,” John said. “Heck, Skye could probably show up riding a chestnut cow and get away with it. Now, listen: Today is taken care of. And so’s tomorrow. The dye should last till Friday. After that, though, we’re going to have to rinse it out and redye.”

“Stewball’s scenes may be finished in a couple of days. According to Skye, Blake wants to fly everyone out this weekend,” Stevie said.

“If that’s what happens, great. But otherwise, remember that it won’t last forever, okay?” John said.

Before John left, Lisa took him aside and thanked him again. She began, “I don’t know what to say—”

“Then don’t say anything,” John whispered. He reached down and gave her hand a warm squeeze. “I was happy to do it.”

she led Sir Prize out of the huge stall in his private barn. “Come on, you big oaf, it’s time for you to disappear.”

The animal trainer was waiting outside. “Now, you’re sure Mr. Ransom wants you to put the tack on Sir-Sir?” she asked nervously.

“Yes, I’m sure. Didn’t he come tell you?” Carole asked, feigning innocence.

The woman nodded, keeping pace with them. “He—he did, but I always like to double-check.”

Carole walked faster to discourage the woman from following. “Mr. Ransom will personally return his mount after the shoot,” she said.

“All right, I—I guess,” the woman said, finally dropping back. “Take good care of him! He’s a very valuable animal!” she called.

In the main barn Carole found an empty, out-of-the-way
stall. It was a straight stall, not a box stall, which meant the horse had to be tied standing forward. The ranch hands used the straight stalls when they needed to keep a horse on hand temporarily—before the farrier’s or veterinarian’s visit, for instance. A straight stall was completely safe and acceptable as long as a horse didn’t have to live in it around the clock.

“I’m sure these quarters are shockingly small for you, Sir,” Carole said as she tied Prize’s lead line to the ring on the wall with a quick-release knot, “but I’m afraid it’s the best we can do for our supporting cast this afternoon. You see, your understudy is about to take center stage.”

of chairs on the viewing platform was deathly quiet. Carole, Stevie, Lisa, Kate, Christine, and John were waiting for the scene to begin. A hundred yards away, Skye was mounted on Stewball. All they could do now was cross their fingers and hope.

The director’s nasal voice carried over the whispered conversations of the crew and the other viewers. “Too bad this probably won’t be the final shoot,” he said to a cameraman. “Those dark clouds add just the right touch of menace for this scene.” After another minute or two, the director gave a signal to one of his assistants.

“Quiet on the set! Quiet, please!” the assistant yelled. “Five, four, three, two, one—roll film!”

They saw the cattle first. Moving at a lively pace, the cows and calves came toward the corral. Then Skye and Stewball appeared, herding them like old pros, with the sheepdog running alongside. And it was just as Stevie had said: The whole scene went like clockwork.

Stewball may have been a chestnut, but underneath he was the same quick, clever cow horse he’d always been. He jogged, he loped, he stopped, he turned on a dime. He anticipated the herd’s every move, and Skye gave him free rein to do it.

Skye himself sat boldly on top, his cowboy hat fixed at a rakish tilt. Together, and with the dog’s help, they brought the cattle into the corral. When they were all penned, Skye clanged the gate shut and herded them down to one end.

Lisa stole a glance at the director. He was staring, utterly transfixed, at the scene.

Skye backed up and chose a calf to cut. He galloped toward the herd, sending most of them stampeding to the other end of the corral. But one calf was caught, facing off against the horse and rider. Skye let Stewball
show his stuff as he prevented the calf from joining the herd. Then, with a loud whoop, Skye let the calf go. He took off his cowboy hat and tossed it high in the air.

“Cut!” the director screamed. “It’s a take!”

and raced onto the set, shouting happily. The Saddle Club high-fived one another as they ran to surround Skye. “It’s a take! It’s a take!” Stevie yelled.

Skye jumped off and started hugging people. “I owe it all to you guys!” he said. “And you!” He gave Stewball a hug.

“And we owe it all to …” Lisa looked around for John. She couldn’t see him anywhere. It was just like him to leave before taking any credit. She would have to catch up with him later.

“John’s gone?” Carole asked. She had to yell to make herself heard above the celebratory din.

Lisa nodded. “I’ll bet he went to do some work.”

“He’s not going to get away with this!” Carole said. “We’re going to publicly humiliate him with praise!”

“You’d better believe it,” Skye said.

The director was standing a few feet away, talking with crew members. “Now, that’s what I call a real cutting horse. That Prize is incredible. I may not know much about animals, but I can always recognize talent.”

Grinning delightedly, The Saddle Club winked at one another.

“Say, we’d better pack it in, Boss,” said one of the men. “It looks like it’s going to rain.”

Even as the man spoke, the first drops began to fall. The storm that Frank Devine had been following in the paper had finally arrived.

“We might as well pack it in, too, huh?” Stevie said. “I’ll ride Stewball back if no one minds.”

“Yes, let’s get him put away, so we can do the swap again,” Carole said. “If he gets all wet he’ll—oh, oh, ohmigosh!” She had been about to say “He’ll be harder to cool down.” But suddenly John’s words came back to her. And they came back to all the girls at the same time.
We’re going to have to rinse it out and redye
. John had dyed Stewball with a water-soluble dye.

There was a momentary pause in the rain. It was the calm before the storm. It lasted about two seconds. Then the drops turned into a deluge, and Carole began to yell. “Quick! Stevie! Get him out of here! Hurry! Hurry! Before it’s too late!”

But it was already too late. Stewball sidled away from Stevie, stubbornly refusing to let her get on. The rain poured down. The girls covered their eyes. And in a matter of minutes, Stewball was a skewbald once again.

—or shouting—at once. The Saddle Club demanded to be heard. The director demanded an explanation. Skye demanded to talk to his manager. The animal trainer demanded the real Sir Prize. The crew demanded to get out of the rain. And every so often, Stewball let out a loud, triumphant neigh.

Finally there was a break in the uproar, and the director’s high-pitched voice won out. “Look!” he whined. “All I wanna know is how fast can we sign this animal?”

Skye translated for the girls. “Stewball’s hired!”

“Then may I suggest, on behalf of Stewball, that we all adjourn to the stables where it’s dry?” Stevie asked.

“Do you work for me?” the director asked.

“Not exactly,” Stevie replied.

“Well, you oughta—that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” the director said.

over to the stables. Carole took the animal trainer to Prize’s stall. “My poor baby!” the woman cried. “He’s suffocating in this tiny stall. It’s an outrage!”

BOOK: Cutting Horse
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