Excerpts for Stables S.O.S.

Chapter One

"So," said Drummer, gazing at me with his deep brown eyes, "what's the plan? And don't tell me you still haven't got one."

I chewed the inside of my mouth and made a face. I was going to get nagged. Again. Because the fact was I didn't have a plan. The promise I'd made at Christmas had progressed no further. Yet, I reminded myself.

"Haven't you got any ideas?" I asked him, attacking his tail with a plastic currycomb.

"Hey, what are you doing back there?" Drummer said, turning as far as his rope would allow to take a look. "You're not supposed to use one of those things on my tail. It pulls the hairs out."

"Your tail can stand a bit of thinning out," I told him, hacking away. My pony's black tail was more like three tails, there was so much of it.

"Ouch!" bleated Drummer theatrically.

No, I still didn't have a plan. You are useless, Pia, I silently scolded myself. No one at Laurel Farm, where I keep Drummer, my bay, part-Arab pony, had come up with a plan, either. If we didn't get one in place soon, it would be too late.

"Bambi's getting panicky about it," Drummer told me unnecessarily.

"I know. I know. I'm trying. We all are."

"Try harder!" Drum instructed me.

It's something, isn't it, getting yelled at by your own pony, even if it is understandable.

"There," I told him, "you're done. You can go back out in the field with the others."

"About time," Drummer grumbled.

Leading him across the yard to the field gate, I gave him the carrot he knew was in my pocket; as I did, my fingers brushed against the tiny stone statue that is always there. Two crunches and the carrot was gone-and so was Drum, trotting across the grass to meet up with his friends, particularly Bambi.

Even though I'd brushed out his saddle mark after our early ride and tidied up his mane and tail (or perhaps because of it!), Drummer went through the same ritual of getting down to roll, and because today was the first warm, sunny day of spring, he left a carpet of his molting winter hair behind on the dirt as he rose and shook himself, dust and more loose hairs gently falling around him in a cloud. I knew the birds would soon be swooping down to claim the discarded coat for their nests.

"Hey, Pia!" I heard someone shout, and looking around, I spotted Katy over on the other side of the field, stretching herself up like a meerkat to look over the hill. I wondered where everyone had gone. After hooking Drum's halter over the gate, I walked over to find Bean and James with Katy, sitting on the grass and enjoying the view.

"Hiya!" Bean greeted me as I flopped down beside them. They had picked a great spot-the ground fell away, and we could see the countryside beyond the ponies' field below us.

"Have you been riding?" I asked.

"Nah!" sighed James. "It's too hot. Moth's taking forever to shed her winter coat now that her clip has grown out, so she'll only get all sweaty and lose weight."

"That's because you go everywhere at a hundred miles an hour," Katy remarked disapprovingly.

"Moth hates just hanging around," James replied, by way of explanation.

"Do I spy candy?" I asked.

"Yeah, help yourself," said Bean, throwing me the bag. "Before they're all gone!" she added, shooting James a meaningful look.

"What are you all doing out here?" I asked.

"Getting our heads around a plan," Bean said.

"I wish!" exclaimed James. "We're trying to think up a plan."

"No luck yet," Katy said. "It's all your fault, Pia. It was your idea."

"And now we're the ones doing all the work!" added James, swiveling around and winking at me.

My legs instantly jellified. I don't mean they actually turned to jelly. They just felt as though they had. James can do that to me. I wish he couldn't; it's uncomfortable and very inconvenient. I mean, what if there was a sudden emergency and I had to get up and go somewhere fast? I couldn't do that with jellified legs, could I?

We all lay looking at the view or the sky, and as my legs gradually returned to their normal solid-feeling state, I searched my mind once again for inspiration. A brilliant plan isn't going to invent itself, I thought. We had to come up with one! And Katy was right. It had been my idea. My mind stayed blank, just like it does when I try to make polite conversation with my dad's annoying girlfriend, Skinny Lynny, whom he left me and Mom for.

I couldn't believe we still had no plan in place. Christmas was months behind us-but since then there had always been so much going on that putting aside any time for serious thinking had been out of the question. January had been bitterly cold, and all the pipes in the stables had frozen solid, making watering the ponies difficult. Poor Mrs. Collins, who lived in her house at Laurel Farm, had fed a hose from her kitchen sink, and we had all stood outside in a line like wartime refugees with our ponies' buckets, which had taken forever to fill. And because the ground in the field had been so hard and rutted, the ponies had been in for most of the month as we'd been scared they'd damage their legs, so we'd had to exercise them in the outdoor school, all at the same time-which had been tricky. I'd lost count of the number of times I'd almost fallen-no, make that "been bucked"-off. The ponies were so frisky it had taken all our concentration to stay on them and keep them moving.

Then February had brought deep snow-which had been even worse because I couldn't bike to the stables, and my mom's car wasn't man enough to tackle the snow, so Dee-Dee's mom Sophie, in that can-do way of hers, had acted as a taxi service in her huge 4X4, ferrying everyone from their homes to the stables and back again (James said she only did it because she would have had to feed our ponies and muck out the barn for us otherwise, but Katy told him he was looking a gift horse in the mouth). But at least we'd been able to turn the ponies out in the snow-they'd gone ballistic! It had been really funny watching them gallop about and roll in it. They'd all looked like they'd been sugar-frosted! We'd even managed to ride them on the bridle paths in the snow on the weekend, which had been amazing-but not exactly good for thinking up plans because we'd either been concentrating on where we were going or laughing so much.

March had been a month for catching up and struggling with the thaw, April had brought the Easter holidays and some events that we'd all entered to compete, and now, unbelievably, it was May. Already! Time to get cracking because the deadline was rushing toward us-it was now only two months away-and things were getting desperate!

I lay in the sunshine and racked my brain. At last we had time to think. But then, just as we found some time to give the problem our full attention, yet another diversion arrived. Only today, relaxing in the field, we didn't know just how big a diversion it was going to be.

"Uh-oh, look out, two more lost souls," remarked Katy, twirling a blade of grass around her mouth and squinting against the sunlight. Lazily, I turned and followed her gaze, frowning as my eyes found their target. It was a man and a woman, standing in the ponies' field, looking around and pointing.

"Go and tell them to clear out," murmured James rudely. "Honestly, some hikers think they can just walk anywhere-including our ponies' field. And they're ruining my concentration," he added.

"They don't look like hikers," mused Katy. "They're both wearing suits. Who hikes in a suit?"

"Who cares?" mumbled Bean. "Is there any more candy, Pia?"

"Nope, all gone," I told her, putting the last piece in my mouth and chewing. I refused to be distracted. How awful we are at inspiration, I thought, still planless. Totally, completely awful. Time was ticking away, and we still had nothing. Nada. Zilch. Big, fat zero. Frankly, my head hurt.

"They must be hikers," sighed James, shielding his eyes against the sun as he looked across the field, "because they're looking at a map."

"They're freaking Tiffany out," Bean said huffily.

I looked over to where Tiffany had been grazing with Katy's blue roan gelding, Bluey, and James's chestnut mare, Moth. Bean's palomino mare was doing her best giraffe impersonation, head high, eyes bulging, staring at the two strangers in dismay. You'd think they were a couple of yeti, not just an ordinary man and woman. The trouble with Tiffany is that she's unnerved by anything out of the ordinary. And, it has to be said, quite a lot of things in the ordinary, too.

"Everything scares Tiffany," James snorted.

"She's really brave!" Bean protested indignantly.

"What?" asked Katy, bewildered.

"Explain!" I demanded.

"OK, so she is scared of everything, but she still goes past things for me, things your ponies aren't scared of," Bean said. "It's easy for your ponies, but Tiffany has to face her fears every day. That makes her extra brave."

"One hundred percent Bean logic." Katy sighed, lying back down in the grass and gazing up at the sky.

"I wonder how Dee's doing," I said. She had gone to a show with her pony, Dolly Daydream. I imagined them cantering around the ring looking fabulous, accepting a first place ribbon, posing for photographers from the horsey press. The type of show Dee entered would have those. Horsey press photographers didn't bother going to shows attended by the likes of Drummer and me.

"Mmmm, I wonder how poor old Mrs. Collins is doing," said Katy, looking through her red candy wrapper at Bluey. "Oh, wow, Bluey looks fabulous as a strawberry roan. But then, he would," she added, totally infatuated with her pony.

"Yes, poor Mrs. C," agreed Bean.

Mrs. Collins was our ponies' landlady and, as I've mentioned, she lived alone in her house on the yard. Except that she wasn't living there at the moment because only a week ago she'd been taken to the hospital in an ambulance after suffering a heart attack. Sophie, Dee-Dee's mom, was looking after Mrs. Collins's cats and greyhound, Squish, and we were all chipping in, glad to help. Old Mrs. C was a bit nutty, but everyone was hoping she'd be back soon. I mean, she was OK really, and sometimes, almost sane.

"I think you ought to tell those two trespassers to get out, James," said Katy bossily.

"Well, it's strange, but they don't look very lost," James replied. "They look like they mean to be here. You go and tell them if you're that worried."

"I'm too comfortable," Katy snorted, "and you're a real wimp! Here, Bean." She waved the candy wrapper in Bean's direction. "See what Tiffany looks like pink."

"No thanks. I like her all golden and gorgeous. I'll go and tell them," Bean volunteered, getting to her feet and stretching. Nearby, Drummer and Bambi lifted their heads from grazing, still chewing as they watched Bean walk across the field toward the gate where the two strangers were standing.

I could imagine the conversation: Bean would politely ask them whether they were lost. They would nod their heads and ask where the mislaid footpath was. Bean would point to the next field. They would thank her and head for the right path, avoiding the pony poo and climbing through the fence, turning to give Bean a wave of thanks. It happened now and again. I'd helped hikers before.

My gaze swung around to Drummer. He really is the most wonderful, fabulous bay pony. OK, he isn't the politest pony in the world (sometimes he's downright rude), but he has a heart of gold, even if he does hide it successfully. And there was Bambi standing next to him, as close as she could get, her muzzle resting on Drummer's mahogany back. I heard myself sigh. If we didn't come up with some sort of plan soon...

"There must be a way!" Katy insisted, as though able to hear my thoughts. She said it at least once a day. She'd been saying it at least once a day since Santa's busiest night of the year.

"Yes, there must," James agreed, exasperated. "But the trouble is, we don't know what it is!"

"Yet!" I said, determined to be positive.

"Let's go through it again..." began Katy. James groaned and my heart sank, too. We didn't need to spell it out again. We knew what we had to do. We just didn't know how to do it.

"There has to be a way!" Katy said again, scratching her head, determined that if she said it enough times, the answer would present itself to her. It hadn't yet. Her red hair was caught back in a band-purple of course. She never seemed to wear any other color. James had once asked her, in mock seriousness, whether she thought she would grow out of purple and graduate to, say, green or blue. Katy had just stared at him as though he were crazy.

"Yes, there is a way, Katy," James said. "We're just waiting for you to tell us what it is. So what is it?"

Katy balled up her candy wrapper and threw it at James.

"Ahhhh!" screamed James dramatically, his hand flying upward and covering one side of his face. "My eye, my eye!"

For a second, Katy looked horrified then, realizing he was joking, gave James a shove. "Very funny!" she said. "NOT!" she added.

Bean hurried back across the field. She looked a lot less relaxed than she had when she'd left us. Something wasn't right. I looked over to the gate. The man and the woman were still there, looking around them and writing something down in a notebook.

"What's up?" asked James, noticing Bean's expression. She flopped down beside us and tore at the grass, her eyebrows knotting together in a frown under her blond bangs. "Weren't they grateful to be shown the right path?"

"They're not hikers," said Bean, chewing her lip.

"Then why were they looking at a map?" asked Katy.

"It wasn't a map," gulped Bean.

"Who are they then?" I asked.

"The man said his name was Robert Collins. He said he was Mrs. Collins's son."

"I didn't know she had any family," said Katy, sitting up. "She never said anything about them."

We stared at the strangers with renewed interest, fixating on the man, Mrs. Collins's son.

"I've never seen him before," added James.

"Well, that's what he said," Bean replied, shrugging her shoulders. Her voice was all wobbly.

"So what's he doing here? Now?" Katy asked her.

Bean sniffed. James edged closer and put his arm around her shoulders, sparking pangs of jealousy in my heart. I only hoped James would never find out about my unrequited feelings for him.

"What is it, Bean? Why are you so upset? What did they say to you?" he asked gently.

"They said..." began Bean. "Robert Collins said..." She stopped.

I felt my heart skip a beat for a different reason. What had Mrs. Collins's son said to upset Bean so much?

Bean gulped. "He told me that he was selling Laurel Farm for development." Bean started crying. "The paper was covered in plans for new houses in this very field, and he said that we would all have to find new homes for the ponies!"