True Riders CHAPTER 1
BROOKE RHODES STARED out the classroom window, watching as a brightly colored maple leaf floated lazily to the ground on the breeze. A second later a gust of wind rattled the panes, sending more autumn leaves whirling crazily across the school yard.
Stifling a yawn and pushing her glasses up her nose, Brooke glanced at the clock over the classroom door. English was her last class of the day, and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. The school was overheated and stuffy, making her feel sleepy.
Or maybe it was boredom making her feel that way. At the front of the room, Benji Finnegan was droning on and on about a plane crash and an axe. The class had been doing oral book reports for the past couple of days—Brooke’s report on The Secret Garden had been on Friday—and it seemed to be taking forever to get through them all.
Brooke shifted in her chair, willing the hands of the clock to move faster. It was only Monday, but Brooke was already looking forward to the weekend. She hoped she would get to spend it exactly as she’d spent the past weekend—with Foxy.
Just thinking about her spunky Chincoteague pony made Brooke smile. Foxy was still young—only five and a half years old—and still learning about being a riding horse. Brooke had owned the flaxen chestnut mare since she was a yearling and had done most of Foxy’s training herself, though she’d had plenty of help and advice from books, websites, and especially her neighbors, who’d owned horses for ages.
And of course, for the past almost-two years, she’d also had lots of advice and encouragement from the Pony Post, a private online message board with just four members, all of them crazy about Chincoteague ponies. Brooke had never met the other three members in person but still considered them among her very best friends. In fact, she sometimes thought she knew more about them than she did about her real-life friends right there in Maryland.
For instance, she knew that Haley Duncan took her chosen sport of eventing very seriously. She trained and competed as much as she could with her pony, Wings, a lively pinto gelding she free leased from a neighbor. Earlier that fall Haley and Wings had participated in a riding clinic with a world-famous eventer who’d probably be competing in the Olympics someday soon. Brooke had no dreams of Olympic glory herself, but hearing about Haley’s experience at the clinic had inspired Brooke to take her own riding and training a little more seriously.
Then there was Nina Peralt. She lived in New Orleans and had recently ridden her pony, Bay Breeze, in a show at her boarding barn. The two of them had done well, but more important, they’d had fun. In fact, Nina seemed to have fun no matter what she was doing, which helped Brooke remember not to take things too seriously.
The final member of the Pony Post was Maddie Martinez, who lived in Northern California. She didn’t own a pony herself but rode a Chincoteague mare named Cloudy at her lesson stable. Brooke admired the way Maddie was practically fearless and took everything in stride—which was pretty much the opposite of how Brooke felt most of the time. But she liked to think that just knowing Maddie had made her a little braver.
I was totally channeling all three of them this weekend during my rides, Brooke thought, remembering the way she’d stayed focused, not letting Foxy’s prancing scare her out of convincing the mare to do a proper turn on the forehand. And then Brooke had celebrated finally getting it right by going on a nice, relaxing trail ride afterward.
She and Foxy had been having a lot of fun lately. But hearing about what her friends had been doing—Haley’s clinic, Nina’s show—had made Brooke wonder if she and Foxy should be making even more progress than they were.
Haley and the others are always talking about how much fun jumping is, she thought. It’s getting cold, but the ground isn’t frozen yet. Maybe we should try to get back to that part of our training.
She nodded, liking the idea. Back in the summer her stepfather had surprised her with two weeks at riding camp for her and Foxy. The two of them had learned a lot there, including the basics of jumping. While Brooke had done her best to keep practicing most of the stuff they’d learned, she hadn’t done much jumping other than hopping over the occasional log in the woods near her house. While she’d had a makeshift riding ring in the corner of Foxy’s pasture for years, she didn’t have any real jumps there—just a few beat-up traffic cones her stepfather had brought home from the used car lot, and a couple of fence posts she’d used to make obstacle courses to practice steering.
Maybe I can ask Adam to help me build some real jumps, Brooke thought. If he has time, that is.
She sneaked a peek over her shoulder. Adam Conley was sitting in the back row with the Webb twins. All three boys were goofing off, smacking one another and giggling whenever the teacher wasn’t looking their way. Brooke rolled her eyes and turned around again. What did Adam see in those guys, anyway? He’d never hung out with them before this year.
At that moment Benji finally finished his report and sat down. Ms. Neal consulted the chart on her desk. “Kiersten, you’re next,” she announced. “Go ahead.”
Brooke watched as Kiersten Ellis walked to the front of the room clutching a stapled sheaf of papers. Kiersten was new. She’d joined their class just a couple of weeks earlier. She was a little taller than Brooke and just as slender, with glossy dark brown hair that reached almost to her waist. She was wearing boots that looked a lot like the fancy paddock boots Brooke had seen at the feed store.
Silly, Brooke told herself with a smile. Mom’s always saying how my horsey clothes are right in style. Kiersten probably got hers at the mall. She’s probably never even seen a horse up close.
Brooke’s mind was drifting back to Foxy when Kiersten cleared her throat and started her report. Brooke blinked and sat up a little straighter when she heard the word “horse.”
“. . . the stable boy feeds the orphan foal with camel’s milk,” Kiersten was reading from the papers in her hand. “And thanks to his care, Sham grows big and strong and faster than any other horse in the sultan’s stables. . . .”
That’s more like it! Brooke thought.
She listened with interest as Kiersten continued her report. The new girl’s voice was soft, but Brooke leaned forward so she could hear every word. The book she was talking about sounded interesting, and at the end Brooke was surprised to hear that it was by one of her favorite authors, Marguerite Henry.
When Kiersten sat down, Brooke watched her out of the corner of her eye, ignoring Hunter Webb’s report on some dumb sports story. Had Kiersten chosen that book at random? Or because she was interested in history? Or could she be interested in horses just like Brooke?
Finally the bell rang to end class. Brooke gathered up her books and glanced back at Adam. He was horsing around with his friends again, so she decided to ask him about the jumps later.
Noticing Kiersten heading for the door, Brooke grabbed the rest of her stuff and caught up with her. “Hey,” she said, feeling a little shy. “I liked your book report. What was the name of the book again?”
Kiersten shot her a small smile in return. “Thanks. It’s called King of the Wind.”
Brooke nodded, making a mental note to look for it the next time she went to the library. “I’ve read a few other books by the same author, but not that one,” she told Kiersten as the two of them stepped out into the crowded school hallway. “My favorite is Misty of Chincoteague.”
Kiersten’s smile was bigger this time. “Really? I love that one too!”
“So . . .” Brooke hugged her books to her chest, not sure how to ask the next question. “Um, do you just like horse books, or actual horses, too?”
Kiersten laughed. “Both,” she said, her greenish-hazel eyes brightening. “I’ve been riding forever.” Then her expression went sort of dim and distant again. “I mean, I used to ride—you know, up in Pennsylvania, before we moved here.”
Something about the way Kiersten’s mouth puckered as she said the last part made Brooke feel awkward, as if Brooke had said something wrong without realizing it. “Pennsylvania?” Brooke blurted out, trying to cover her own discomfort. “My friend Nina has cousins who live there.”
“Really?” Kiersten perked up again. “Where in Pennsylvania?”
“Um, I’m not sure.” Brooke was already wishing she hadn’t said anything. At least not about Nina. Adam was always telling her how weird it was that she considered the other Pony Post members close friends even though she’d never even met them in person. How was she supposed to explain something like that to someone she’d just met?
At that moment Adam burst out of the classroom and almost crashed into Brooke and Kiersten. He veered off just in time, tossing his hair off his forehead as his pale blue eyes barely grazed Brooke’s face.
“Yo, B,” he said, and then the twins caught up to him and the three of them ran off down the hall, pushing and shoving and laughing loudly.
What’s happened to Adam lately, anyway? Brooke wondered uneasily, watching them go. It’s like he doesn’t even remember we’re friends anymore.
It was a weird thought. Because she couldn’t even remember a time when the two of them hadn’t been friends—best friends. More like brother and sister, really. He was the only other kid near her age who lived within several miles of her house, which meant they’d only had each other to play with growing up. But that had been okay with both of them. They’d spent most of their time exploring every last corner of the woods, fields, and creeks near their homes, on foot or on their bikes. Then Foxy had come along, and they’d been able to explore even farther, with Brooke riding her pony and Adam on the fancy dirt bike he’d gotten for his tenth birthday.
Last spring all that had started to change, though. Brooke had noticed that Adam didn’t always sit with her at lunch anymore, and he didn’t come by after school as often either. That summer things had gotten even stranger. Instead of turning up at the screen door every morning, Adam had practically disappeared, spending most of his time with his swim team buddies or other boys Brooke barely knew. Sure, he still came to hang out sometimes. But not like before.
Brooke had discussed Adam’s odd behavior with her Pony Post friends. Nina, who seemed to know the most about boys, had advised her to wait and see what happened. She said boys their age “went all weird sometimes” and that he’d probably go back to normal eventually. In the meantime it wouldn’t do any good to worry about it. Maddie had agreed, pointing out that you couldn’t really change other people—something Maddie’s parents apparently liked to remind her of every time she complained about her prissy older sister or her rambunctious younger brothers.
Brooke was trying to follow her friends’ advice. But it wasn’t easy, and she sighed as she watched Adam disappear around the corner of the school hallway.
Oh well, she thought. It’s a good thing I have other friends.
Suddenly remembering that Adam and his goony buddies had cut her and Kiersten off practically midsentence, she turned back to where the other girl had been standing. But Kiersten was gone.
Brooke bit her lip, feeling bad about spacing out on the new girl, and making a silent vow to try to talk to her again sometime. Brooke had discovered at camp that she wasn’t very confident about making new friends—she’d never had to be, since most of the kids at her school had been going there since kindergarten, just like her and Adam. But maybe Kiersten would turn out to be worth a little extra effort. None of Brooke’s other local friends had any interest in horses at all, aside from Adam, who sometimes helped her with Foxy’s training or asked to hop on bareback for a quick ride.
Maybe I’ll ask Maddie for tips on getting to know Kiersten better, Brooke thought. Maddie’s mother was a sergeant in the US Air Force, which meant the family moved a lot. Brooke couldn’t imagine having to get used to a new home and a new school every few years, though Maddie didn’t seem to mind it too much.
Joining the stream of students pouring toward the exit, Brooke headed for her locker. After that she found herself swept out into a bitterly cold but sunny afternoon. The wind tickled her neck and she shivered. She hunched farther into the collar of her coat as she hurried toward the buses idling at the curb. As she climbed aboard hers she glanced around for Adam, but he was nowhere in sight.
That was no surprise. Ever since basketball tryouts had started a few days earlier, Adam had been staying after school almost every day.
Oh well, Brooke thought. I’ll have to call him later to talk about building some jumps.
She found a seat near the front of the bus, already looking forward to spending the rest of the afternoon with Foxy.