Authors: Bonnie Bryant
“What could possibly be happening here? Max is one of the most reputable horsemen in the business. He’d never do anything dishonest,” Lisa said.
“You’re right,” Stevie acknowledged. “Maybe she left because of the Super Soaker game. I’m sure Max thought it was another careless scheme of mine—getting her to hold up the target—and by leaving, she proved him right.”
“I think Deborah probably just got sick of being at Pine Hollow—she never seemed that keen on riding—and Max feels bad that he couldn’t win her over to it. He’s always so disappointed when people don’t feel the same way about the place as we do,” Carole said.
“Well, then it was pretty rude of her to just take off like that,” Stevie said. “She may be upset with me, but why take it out on Max? She could’ve at least thanked him for trying.”
“She probably would have but didn’t have time. I’ll bet there’s a fast-breaking story that she has to cover,” Lisa said.
Even though no conclusion seemed perfect, one thing was clear: Max was upset, and the girls wanted to help him as much as possible.
“I propose that we leave the women to their own devices for a while and get busy keeping the picnic running smoothly,” Carole suggested.
“Agreed,” Stevie said. “What’s left?”
“There’s the jumping demonstration by the short-stirrup kids, and after that the fireworks,” Carole said.
The short-stirrup riders were younger boys and girls who were in their first year of competition. They were eligible to enter the short-stirrup division at horse shows, and the fences they jumped were no higher than eighteen inches. Most of them rode small ponies like Nickel and Dime.
“Okay,” Stevie said, “so basically the fences need to be set up in the indoor ring. I’m sure they’ll want to regroom the ponies themselves—I saw May fussing over Nickel for hours this morning.”
“Don’t forget regular evening feeding, haying, and watering,” Carole said, ever mindful of the horses.
“Not to mention the stalls, which I’m sure no one has had time to muck out,” Lisa added.
Stevie groaned. “All right, then, let’s get to it. We’ll skip watching the jumping and work inside instead,” she said.
As usual, part of Stevie’s skill in organization was her ability to delegate most of the work to others. Before long moms and dads and older riders were dragging poles and standards to set up crossbars and tiny verticals in the indoor ring, dragging the hose from stall to stall to refill water buckets, and tossing hay bales down from the loft. The Saddle Club decided they’d do the mucking out.
Red O’Malley’s face lit up when he saw them coming with the big cart to haul used bedding to the manure pile. “Are you girls a sight for sore eyes,” he said. “My two other hands are off today, and I was wondering how we were going to finish all the stalls before dark. I thought maybe I’d have to ask some of those women who’ve been hanging around all day for some help.”
“Oh, Red, you
,” Lisa protested. “They’d get completely filthy.”
“You all are filthy half the time,” Red pointed out.
“Yeah, but we’re different,” Stevie said.
“How?” Red asked, teasing them.
“Because we’re not twenty-five,” Carole said, kidding him right back.
“Yeah, so it’s okay for us,” Lisa said.
After telling them that they’d still be mucking out stalls when they were
-five, Red thanked them and headed back out to the paddocks to start bringing the horses in for feeding.
“So how should we do this—three on one or three on three?” Stevie asked. She was referring to the number of girls per stall.
“As if you had to ask,” Lisa said.
They opened the nearest empty stall and began mucking, taking turns dumping the cart behind the barn. When they had finished four and started on the fifth and last stall on the aisle, Max passed by on the way to his office next door. He barely nodded in their direction.
“Gosh, I hope the jumping went okay—Max still looks kind of disturbed,” Carole said.
“He doesn’t look like a man who has thirteen women—intelligent, attractive, successful, or all of the above—waiting for him to return,” Stevie said.
“Do you think he liked
of them?” Lisa asked.
,” Stevie replied. “I saw him talking with the Cartwright twins during the games demonstration. He
looked so absorbed he hardly even paid attention to the games.”
“Really?” Carole said. “Because he and Holly looked like they were hitting it off
“Max and Holly would look good together. They’re the perfect height for each other,” Stevie said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, but if we’re talking looks, you’ve got to hand it to Tiffani,” Lisa said. There was a pause as they sighed in unison. By powers unknown to Stevie, Lisa, and Carole, Tiffani had somehow managed to remain a vision of model-perfect loveliness all day, in spite of the heat, dust, and horseflesh.
During the pause in conversation, the door to Max’s office squeaked on its hinges. Without really trying, they could hear Max and Mrs. Reg talking in urgent, hushed tones.
“Why be stubborn at a time like this?” Mrs. Reg demanded.
stubbornness, Mother. I just know there’s nothing I can do,” Max answered.
“Nothing? That’s not true. You could go after her,” Mrs. Reg said.
“Go after her now?”
“That’s what your father had to do to get me back.”
“Forget it. It’s no use. She’s never going to speak to me again.”
?” Carole mouthed.
Stevie shrugged and put her finger to her lips.
Mrs. Reg said something inaudible. Max answered more loudly. “It’s off. Everything concerning Deborah Hale is off. I’m just thankful I was spared the embarrassment of asking her to marry me in public and then having her run off.”
The door closed again, and they heard footsteps retreating. They ran to the stall door and looked out into the aisle. Mrs. Reg was walking briskly toward the house wringing her hands.
Stevie watched her go, afraid to move or speak or even breathe. The Saddle Club had ruined the lives of two people. Not only that, they had ruined any chance of producing an heir for Pine Hollow. She glanced at her friends.
“I have a pit in my stomach the size of a black hole,” she announced.
“How could we have been so stupid?” Carole asked. “The whole time we thought Max was sick or going crazy because he kept sneezing and forgetting our names, he was falling in love! He must have just been incredibly nervous around Deborah. What were we thinking?”
Lisa just shook her head wordlessly. What they had failed to notice for an entire week was now as glaring as a Fourth of July firecracker: Max needed thirteen single women like he needed thirteen sick horses. He had
found a mother for Max the Fourth—none other than Deborah Hale. Now something had gone dreadfully wrong.
One by one Stevie, Lisa, and Carole started to tick off the problems
“We brought thirteen single women to the picnic where Max was planning to propose marriage to another woman,” Stevie said, getting right to the heart of the matter.
Carole winced. “Not only that, but he’d told her that the people at the picnic were his best friends.”
“So we made him look like a playboy,” Lisa said.
“Which is the furthest thing from the truth,” Carole said.
“And we made her cook green hamburgers,” Stevie said.
“And we let her get soaked by squirt guns,” Lisa said.
“And we didn’t get her a towel,” Carole said.
“Forget ‘we’ on those last three,” Stevie said. “I’ll take the blame.”
“She probably thought Max’s ‘closest friends’ hated her,” Carole said.
“So why stick around—” Lisa began.
“For more abuse,” Stevie finished.
“It was one hundred percent our fault,” Carole said.
“And one little announcement from Max would have made everything fine,” Lisa said.
“But we wouldn’t let him make it,” Stevie said.
“So it was two hundred percent our fault,” Carole said.
messed up,” Lisa agreed.
“This could be our biggest mess-up ever,” Carole said. “The future of Pine Hollow is at stake, not to mention Max and Deborah’s happiness.”
“Right. So are we going to sit here, or are we going to stick our noses right back in and
-mess-up everything—or is that ‘mess-down’?” Stevie demanded.
“Whatever it is, we’d better get cracking, because Deborah is in a taxi headed for we-have-no-idea-where,” Lisa said.
“Lisa, I’ll take that as a go-ahead from you. Carole?”
“I’m in. If we don’t get Deborah back for Max, he might never forgive us. And he’s one friend I’m not willing to lose,” Carole added sadly.
N A MATTER
of minutes The Saddle Club had put away all the tools, dumped the manure cart, and reassembled in front of the stall. The first thing to be done was to establish a plan of pursuit.
“What’ll we say to her when we catch her?” Carole asked. Her friends knew that she was often better at knowing what to say to Starlight than to a person in a tricky situation.
“I haven’t quite worked out that part of the plan yet,” Stevie said.
“We’ll decide what to say when we find her,” Lisa said.
“Good,” Stevie said. “One, find Deborah. Two, think up something to say. Now, how on earth do we find out where that taxi went?”
“It was orange and white. That means it’s a Town taxi. Why don’t we just call the dispatcher’s office and ask?” Lisa suggested logically.
“Brilliant!” Stevie cried. “To the telephone!”
They sprinted to Mrs. Reg’s office. The phone there was allowed to be used only in an emergency—and no one bothered to ask if this counted as one. Carole found the number right away. Practically grabbing the phone book out of her hands, Stevie dialed. “Come on, brainstorm, don’t fail me now,” she muttered. She put the call on speaker phone so Carole and Lisa could hear the conversation and give advice if necessary.
“Oh, ah, hello,” Stevie began when someone picked up. “This is Deborah Hale calling. It’s so silly of me, but I’ve taken about a dozen taxis this week—busy journalist, you know—and, well, I took one from Pine Hollow today, and I seem to have lost a pair of gloves, and I just can’t for the life of me remember where I got out, but I’m almost positive I left the gloves there, so I was wondering—do you have a record of where the cab stopped?”
The woman on the other end of the line was clearly not impressed by Stevie’s performance—or fooled by her impersonation of an older woman. “Gloves in July? Yeah, right, tell me another,” she said in a bored tone.
Stevie shot Lisa and Carole a desperate glance. “Try telling her the truth!” Carole whispered.
“All right,” Stevie said in a rush. “I’ll tell you what
really happened. We—my friends and I—have ruined someone’s life, actually two someones’ lives. They were in love, and we got in the way, and now she’s run away and left him, and it’s all our fault, only she thinks it’s his fault, and unless we find her and get her back, we’ll have to live with this for the rest of our lives!”
The dispatcher started to laugh. At first she chuckled, but soon she was howling. “Sounds like something in the movies. A modern-day love story, huh? That’s the best yet!” she said.
“It’s true!” Stevie wailed.
“Yeah, and Romeo’s standing next to me—right! But since it’s such a good one, I’m gonna do you a favor—give you some credit for imagination. Let’s see … Pine Hollow pickup. Oh, yeah, here it is. That cab went to the Willow Creek bus stop over on Main. Hey, if you hurry, maybe you can catch Juliet!” The woman broke up into laughter at her own joke.
Stevie didn’t mind being made fun of at all now that she had gotten the information she wanted. Before the dispatcher had finished whooping, she hung up to ask what the fastest route to the bus stop was.
“I think you go straight downtown past the mall,” Lisa said. “But who are we going to ask to drive us? We can’t exactly explain things to Mrs. Reg or Max. And all of the parents are busy with their children, getting ready for the fireworks.”
“Actually,” Carole said, a gleam coming into her eye, “straight downtown is not
fastest route. It’s only the fastest route by car, if you get my drift.”
“I get it, and I like it, and we’re doing it because there’s not a second to lose,” Stevie said, charging out the door into the tack room. She grabbed bridles and hard hats and tossed them to Lisa and Carole, then took one each for herself.
“What about—?” Lisa began.
“Forget saddles! No time!” Stevie yelled.
The three of them hurried to get Starlight, Barq, and Topside. The horses looked up from their hay and were surprised to have bits placed in their mouths immediately. It was dinnertime, not riding time!
Stevie had mastered the tricky skill of springing up onto Topside bareback, without the help of stirrups. She was mounted in two seconds. Carole gave Lisa ten fingers and tossed her up, then jogged Starlight to the mounting block and swung on herself.