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Autumn Trail

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Autumn Trail


  Lisa wasted no time before heading for Pepper’s stall. She didn’t even stop to greet the curious horses who looked out and nickered as she passed, though she supposed they were probably wondering what she was doing there at this hour.

  Lisa had almost grown accustomed to not seeing Pepper’s head poking out to greet her as she approached, since these days he seemed to spend most of his time with his head hanging low, facing the back of the stall. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see that. But she was surprised by what she did see when she opened the stall door. Pepper was lying on his side in the straw, breathing hard.

  RL 5, 009-012


  A Bantam Skylark Book / October 1993

  Skylark Books is a registered trademark of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and elsewhere.

  “The Saddle Club” is a registered trademark of Bonnie Bryant Hiller. The Saddle Club design I logo, which consists of a riding crop and a riding hat, is a trademark of Bantam Books.

  “USPC” and “Pony Club” are registered trademarks of the United States Pony Clubs, Inc., at The Kentucky Horse Park, 4071 Iron Works Pike, Lexington, KY 40511-8462

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1993 by Bonnie Bryant Hiller.

  Cover art copyright © 1993 by Garin Baker.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-82512-4

  Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.


  I would like to express my special thanks to Catherine Hapka for her help in the writing of this book.



  Title Page



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  About the Author

  “I CAN’T BELIEVE I’m saying this,” Carole Hanson said through chattering teeth, “but I’m glad this ride is almost over.”

  Carole’s two best friends, Stevie Lake and Lisa Atwood, looked at her in amazement. “I can’t believe you’re saying it, either,” Stevie teased. “You mean you’re actually tired of riding?”

  Stevie knew very well that if there was one thing Carole never tired of, it was riding. In fact, Carole, Stevie, and Lisa all loved riding—and everything else about horses—so much that they had formed a group called The Saddle Club. It had only two rules. The first was that members had to be horse crazy, and the second was that they always had to be willing to help one another out with any problem, large or small.

  “Very funny. I mean I’m freezing to death,” Carole responded. She tried to glare at Stevie, but found that a bit difficult, since her eyebrows were frozen in place. She soon gave up and laughed instead. “I guess this will teach me to listen to the weather report more often. Maybe the next time it’s this cold, I’ll know to wear a warmer coat.”

  The three girls were riding on one of the trails that wound through the woods behind Pine Hollow Stables, where they all took riding lessons and where Carole boarded her horse, Starlight. The weather was unusually cold for mid-November in northern Virginia. The night before, the temperature had dropped below freezing. Today, even though it was only late afternoon, it was already bitterly cold.

  “I’m wearing the warmest coat I have, and I’m frozen, too,” Lisa said. “I can’t believe it’s this cold and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. At this rate it’ll be forty below zero by January.” She gave an involuntary shiver at the thought.

  “It feels like it’s forty below now,” Carole declared. Starlight snorted as if in agreement, sending a puff of steam into the frosty air. “See? Even Starlight thinks it’s too cold to be out here.”

  “No, that’s not what he said,” Stevie corrected with a mischievous grin. “He thinks you’re just being selfish. After all, he needs his exercise, no matter what the weather’s like.”

  “I know,” Carole said, giving the horse a pat on the neck. “Sorry, Starlight.” Carole took her responsibilities as a horse owner very seriously. The beautiful bay gelding had been a surprise Christmas present from her father the year before.

  A few seconds later Carole realized that Stevie had been teasing her again. “How do you know what Starlight was saying, anyway? You know how Max is always saying that horses don’t understand English. I bet he’d have a hard time believing you understand Horse.”

  Max was the owner of Pine Hollow and the girls’ riding instructor. He was constantly teaching his riders not to tell their horses what to do in words. Even though some horses seemed to understand a few words, and the tone of a rider’s voice often conveyed meaning to his or her mount, Carole knew that the best way for riders to get their horses to do what they wanted was with their hands, legs, and seat.

  Stevie knew it, too, but at this particular moment she decided to ignore Carole’s teasing and continue her previous thought. “Still,” she said, “I don’t think Starlight would object if we trotted for a while. We can move back down to a walk when we get to the meadow.”

  “Great idea,” Carole said enthusiastically. “That way the horses will get their exercise, and we’ll get back to the stable faster.”

  “And we can post to keep warm,” Lisa added.

  “Exactly what I was thinking,” Stevie said. “Come on, let’s go.”

  The girls signaled for their horses to trot. By this time they were on the smooth, well-worn section of the trail leading to the wide meadow that separated the woods from the pastures behind Pine Hollow. As they left the woods a few minutes later, the girls slowed their horses back down to a walk. It was important for the horses to have a chance to cool down after their exercise before being put back in their stalls, and no matter how cold they were, the girls wouldn’t even consider breaking this rule.

  As they moved across the meadow, Lisa’s eye moved automatically to the pasture where Pepper lived. Pepper had been a Pine Hollow institution for years. He was the horse that Max had usually assigned to new riders, for he was gentle and patient and had a way of teaching them—sometimes even better than Max could, although none of the girls would ever have wanted to be the one to tell Max that! Lisa hadn’t been riding as long as Carole and Stevie had; in fact, Pepper was one of the first horses she had ever ridden, and he had been her favorite mount until his recent retirement.

  It had been difficult for Lisa to accept the fact that Pepper was just too old to be ridden anymore, but she had finally realized that the faithful horse deserved a rest. Stevie had even arranged a retirement party for him, so that all the riders who had learned from Pepper over the years could come and thank him. Now Pepper spent his days peacefully grazing in the shady pasture the girls were passing.

  At this moment, though, Lisa thought that Pepper’s pasture looked anything but inviting. The sun was just setting, and its last ray
s sent harsh shadows across the grayish, frostbitten grass. Lisa could just make out the shape of Pepper, covered in a warm wool stable blanket. He was standing near the fence on the opposite side of the pasture, closest to the stable. His head was hanging low, and he seemed to be staring in the direction of the buildings.

  “Look, you guys,” Lisa said, interrupting Carole and Stevie, who were still trading joking insults. At the worried tone in her voice, both of them turned immediately to see what was wrong. Lisa pointed at the still form of the old gray horse. “Do you think it’s too cold for Pepper to be out here all night?”

  Carole nodded, looking concerned. “Definitely. No horse should stay out too long in this kind of weather, especially not one as old as Pepper. I’m surprised Max hasn’t brought him in already.”

  “I think I’ll ask Max if we can bring him in for the night as soon as we get back,” Lisa said. She gave a last glance at Pepper as she rode on after the others. She noticed that he didn’t even look around as the girls rode past his pasture. That wasn’t like him. Normally he would have hurried over to the fence so that they would stop and visit with him for a while. Lisa wondered if she should mention it to the others. One of the first things she had learned at Pine Hollow was to watch the horses for odd or unusual behavior, since it was often an early warning sign of illness or injury.

  Lisa glanced at Pepper again and decided to keep quiet. She was sure that in this case it was just the cold weather that was making Pepper act strange. But she promised herself she would check him over carefully when they brought him inside.

  Her thoughts were interrupted as Stevie pulled her horse, Topside, up next to Lisa’s mount, Barq. “Hey, Lisa, I hope you’ve got hot chocolate at your house,” Stevie said. The three girls were going to the Atwoods’ house for a sleepover after their ride. “Carole and I have decided we definitely have a craving.”

  Lisa smiled, trying to erase from her mind the image of Pepper standing motionless by the fence. “You bet we do.”

  A LITTLE OVER an hour later, the three girls were settled comfortably in Lisa’s pink-and-white bedroom, steaming cups of hot cocoa in their hands. “This is more like it,” Carole said with a sigh. “I was beginning to think I’d never be warm again.” She snuggled down deeper into the overstuffed chair she was curled up in.

  “I’ll bet Pepper thought that, too,” Lisa said. “He looked so grateful when we brought him inside.”

  “And Max says horses and people don’t speak the same language,” Stevie said with a sniff.

  “I’m just glad Max said it was okay to bring Pepper inside,” Lisa said. “In fact, he said he’d been planning to send Red out to bring him in anyway. He said this cold snap took him a little by surprise, and he wishes he’d brought Pepper in last night, too.” She took a sip of cocoa, almost burning her tongue because she was so distracted thinking about Pepper. “I just hope he’s all right.”

  “Me, too,” Carole said. “By the way, speaking of Red, did you all happen to notice which horse he had just finished exercising when we came in?” Red O’Malley was the head stable hand at Pine Hollow.

  Stevie nodded. “Who else? Garnet, of course.”

  Garnet was a spirited chestnut mare that belonged to Veronica diAngelo, a spoiled rich girl who rode at Pine Hollow and also went to the private school Stevie attended. The diAngelos were the wealthiest family in Willow Creek, and Veronica seemed to think that meant she could make everyone else do her chores and take care of her horse—especially Red, whom Veronica often seemed to regard as her own personal groom.

  “I’d noticed that Veronica hadn’t been around much lately,” Stevie continued. “Red told me she hasn’t been in to ride in almost a week. Poor Garnet was going crazy with boredom, even though Max has been letting her out in the paddock every day. So Red decided to take her out for a quick ride before she started trying to kick down her stall.”

  “That’s terrible,” Carole said, shaking her head in disgust. She had no patience for riders who didn’t take proper care of their horses, and Veronica was definitely one of those. In fact, Veronica’s carelessness had caused the death of the horse she’d owned before Garnet, a beautiful coal-black Thoroughbred stallion named Cobalt. Carole had loved and taken care of Cobalt more than Veronica had herself, and his death had almost made her want to give up riding forever. She had long since changed her mind about that, but the experience had made her even more critical of Veronica’s lazy habits. “That girl should not be allowed anywhere near a stable. I don’t know how she can be so selfish sometimes. She never thinks of anyone but herself, let alone her horse.”

  “Well, she’ll have to show up soon,” Lisa said. “I heard Max saying that she had to be there on Monday when the farrier comes to put new shoes on Garnet.”

  “I guess he’s still hoping she’ll learn something one of these days,” Stevie said.

  “I wouldn’t count on it,” Carole said. “She won’t learn because she doesn’t want to learn.”

  “Speaking of learning,” Stevie said, “Monday is the day my school is putting on its famous stupid Thanksgiving play. Ugh. I thought they’d learned their lesson last year when the whole audience fell asleep.”

  Carole and Lisa laughed. They both went to the public school in Willow Creek. “Come on, Stevie,” Carole said. “What’s wrong with putting on a Thanksgiving play? I think it’s a nice way to celebrate the holiday.”

  “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever seen it,” Stevie said. “Believe me, it’s totally corny. It doesn’t have anything to do with the true meaning of Thanksgiving.”

  “What do you mean?” Lisa asked. “What’s the play about?”

  “Well, you know, the usual stuff,” Stevie said, waving one hand and almost spilling her cocoa. “The Pilgrims sail across the ocean from England and land on Plymouth Rock, and the Native Americans meet them, and they all help each other out and grow some crops and then thank each other and sit down to eat. It’s the same thing every year.”

  Carole shrugged. “That’s the story of the first Thanksgiving.”

  “Right,” Lisa said. “It sounds nice. Seeing the play probably reminds people to be thankful for what they have.”

  “Exactly,” Stevie said with a nod. “People get caught up in the thankful part of it, and they forget all about helping people. That’s part of Thanksgiving, too. Those Pilgrims were thankful because the Native Americans they met helped them to survive, even though they really didn’t have to do it. They just did it because they were nice enough to want to help someone else out. That’s the part a lot of people don’t really seem to care about celebrating, and it’s the part that’s always seemed the most important to me.”

  Carole and Lisa exchanged a perplexed glance. It wasn’t like Stevie to get so worked up about something like this. She wasn’t exactly the philosophical type.

  “I just don’t see anything wrong with putting on a Thanksgiving play,” Carole insisted. “I think it’s good to be thankful for what we have.”

  “I’m not saying putting on a play is a bad thing. Neither is being thankful,” Stevie said. “But it just seems to me that there should be more to it than that. After all, there are plenty of people out there who have a lot less to be thankful for than we do.”

  Lisa nodded thoughtfully. “For instance, the descendants of the Native Americans, who’ve lost most of their land.” Lisa was an excellent student, and she could always be counted on to point out the facts that the others sometimes forgot. Her class had been studying the history of Native Americans, and she had learned that one result of the Wampanoag tribe’s helpfulness to the first European visitors to North America had been that more of those visitors soon followed. Eventually many Native Americans were killed by European diseases or by the Europeans themselves, and those who survived lost most of the land that they’d lived on for generations.

  “That’s true,” Carole said. “I wonder what Christine would think about your play, Stevie?” Christine Lone-tree w
as a Native American girl who was a member of the western branch of The Saddle Club. The girls had met her when they had visited their friend Kate Devine at her family’s dude ranch, The Bar None, in Colorado. Christine lived near The Bar None.

  “I bet she’d agree with me,” Stevie said. “You know Christine. She’s the type who would say that action speaks louder than plays.”

  “She’d probably hate all the corny Indian costumes, anyway,” Lisa said thoughtfully. “You know how she feels about all that touristy stuff.” When the girls had first met Christine, they had gotten off on the wrong foot with her by assuming that, because she was a Native American, she was always taking part in an ancient tribal ritual or something equally mysterious. Christine had soon set them straight on that point, but she still teased them about their misconceptions about Native Americans.

  “Well, what kind of action did you have in mind, Stevie?” asked Carole. “I mean, our school is having a canned-food drive.…”

  “Oh, come on,” Stevie interrupted disdainfully. “You know what that means—all the kids will wait until the last minute, then go and grab all the cans out of the pantry that no one in their family wants to eat anyway. What’s the good of foisting a bunch of cans of lima beans on some poor, unsuspecting person?”

  Lisa and Carole exchanged another glance. They could both tell that Stevie had something else in mind. When that was the case, it was practically impossible to guess just what that something was. The only thing to do was ask, so Lisa did. “What do you think we should do instead of lima beans and plays?”

  “I’m glad you asked,” Stevie said, rubbing her hands together eagerly. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I decided we should each try to do something that really reflects the meaning of Thanksgiving. Something generous and totally selfless.”

  “Like what?” Carole asked.

  “Well, I’m not quite sure about that yet, but it has to be something that helps someone else without benefiting you at all,” Stevie said. “You know how your parents always seem glad that the canned-food drive helps them clean out the pantry?” Lisa and Carole nodded. “Well, that’s why it’s no good,” Stevie continued. “It’s got to be something more selfless. Something that’s maybe even a sacrifice on our part.”

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