"That was a nice clean round, Alexis," called Mrs. Carter. "Let's call it a day."
Alexis, still cantering, reached down to pat Flash on the neck. The morning sun picked up the reddish highlights of his bay coat, making the Quarter Horse gelding look every bit the champion he was.
Alexis rode over to the arena gate where her twin brother, Dexter, was waiting to open it. The same blonde curls that fell out of the sides and back of her helmet also covered his head. Although they weren't identical twins, it was easy to see the resemblance.
Chloe stepped back to admire her work. The stall was spotlessly clean, the water bucket had been scrubbed and the hay rack was full of crisp, green hay. It was all ready for the new horse.
Mrs. Carter stuck her head in the stall.
"Looks great," she said.
"Thanks," said Chloe. "Would it be okay if I scrubbed the rest of the water buckets today instead of Wednesday? I have finals this week and my mom wants me to stay home and study."
Mrs. Carter wrinkled her brow.
"They give finals in middle school now?" she asked incredulously.
"Only the eighth grade," replied Chloe. "They are trying to prepare us for high school."
The owner of Pinnacle Stable chuckled and shook her head.
"Back in the day," she said. "We had finals our senior year to prepare us for college. What will they think of next?" Mrs. Carter sighed and ran her hand through her graying hair.
"OK dear," she continued. "Just make sure you return the buckets to the stalls and fill them once they're clean. It's supposed to get hot this afternoon and I want to bring the horses in from pasture right after morning lessons."
Chloe nodded. Mrs. Carter started to leave, but turned back.
"Oh, by the way," she said. "Emily Parker is in the tack room. She wants to see you when you're done with your chores."
"You mean Misty's owner?" asked Chloe. "What could she want with me?"
Mrs. Carter shrugged. The heels of her riding boots clicked against the cement aisle as the wiry woman retreated toward the back door of the stable.
Through the open barn door Chloe could see the riders warming up for their lessons. She pulled the flip phone out of her pocket to check the time.
"Crap," she muttered to herself. "I barely have time to do the buckets. What could Emily possibly want?"
"I never understood why Lexi can't take Flash trail riding," said Chloe. She turned her head in Dexter's direction, but chose to focus on his horse rather than look into his crystal blue eyes.
"My parents laid out some serious cash for that horse," Dexter replied. He slapped a deer fly that had landed on Winnie's neck. It left a small blood smear on the mare's dun-colored coat. "I guess they're just a bit overprotective."
"But they let you take Winnie on the trails."
"It's different with my horse," he said. He reached forward and tried to wipe away the blood. "They didn't pay that much for Winnie."
"That doesn't sound fair," said Chloe. "My parents are always telling me that they have to spend the same amount on me as they do on my brothers and sisters. That's why they won't buy me a horse and why I have work for lessons and board."
"I guess my parents feel that as long as we're both happy, it's fair," Dexter shrugged. "Besides, I'd rather have Winnie than some fancy show horse."
He looked over at Chloe and smiled, but she quickly turned her head away. Dexter softly chewed on his lip for a minute. Then he urged his horse into a canter.
"Race you to the creek," he called out.
Chloe giggled and nudged her horse into a nice, easy canter. When she reached the creek, Dexter was already letting Winnie take a few gulps of water.
"Do you want to ride up to the ridge or go along the creek?" asked Dexter. Sunshine lowered her head to drink, but Chloe didn't answer. She was staring down at the water.
"OMG," she said. "I totally forgot to finish the water buckets."
Alexis was waiting at the front door of the stable when the silver truck and matching three-horse slant-load trailer pulled in. Alexis smiled and waved as a young man with dark wavy hair opened the passenger door of the truck and stepped out.
He walked over to her and they exchanged a quick kiss.
"I need to get Jester unloaded," Ryder said. "Jeez, I would have waited a few more days if I'd known it was going to be this hot."
"I would have died if you made me wait a couple more days," teased Alexis. She reached over and tickled Ryder as they walked toward the back of the trailer. Ryder's dad had already opened the swinging doors and was lowering the ramp. Inside a beautiful palomino gelding let out a whinny. A whinny was returned from inside the stable.
"Oh, how adorable," Alexis cooed. "Flash is saying welcome."
Ryder unhooked Jester and led him down the ramp.
"So, where do I put this big guy," he said.
"He has the stall right next to Flash. It's all ready for him," said Alexis as she led the way into the barn.
"I have a surprise for you," Ryder said as they walked down the aisle together.
"I love surprises," squealed Alexis. She watched as Ryder put Jester in his new stall, removed his halter and slid the door shut. Then she wriggled herself between Ryder and the stall front and put her arms around Ryder's neck.
He leaned forward to kiss her, but she evaded him.
"Not until I get my surprise," she said.
Ryder chuckled. He stepped back and reached into his pocket.
"I found this when I was packing up the stuff in my room when we moved," he said as he dropped a sterling silver horse charm into her hand.
"It's beautiful," Alexis said as she held it up to the light. A puzzled look crossed her face. "But I've seen one just like this before," she managed to say right before Ryder leaned forward and kissed her.
"Oh, crap," Chloe muttered as she peered through the bars of the last stall and saw a full water bucket hanging on the hook. She glanced out the back door of the barn. Dexter had fallen behind and was only now reaching the path that led along the outside of the arena fence. Chloe sighed.
She quickly cross-tied Sunshine and jogged toward the other end of the stable where the tack room and office were located.
As she burst through the tack room door, Alexis jumped up from where she had been sitting on Ryder's lap.
"Where's Mrs. Carter?" Chloe gasped.
"She's up in the office going over paperwork with Ryder's dad?" Alexis said. “Why?”
“I totally forgot to finish the water buckets,” cried Chloe.
“Chill,” said Alexis. She sat back down on Ryder‘s lap and put her arms around his neck. “I took care of it for you.”
“Thank god. You’re the best BFF ever,” exclaimed Chloe. Her eyes fell upon Ryder and she let out a little gasp. Her hand immediately reached for the horse charm that hung from her neck.
"By the way, Ryder, I want you to meet Chloe,” said Alexis. “Chloe, this is Ryder Davis."
Ryder’s lips curved into a playful smile as he extended his hand.
“It’s nice to meet you, Chloe,” he said.
"OK, Chloe," called Mrs. Carter. "It's your turn."
The wiry woman was already moving from jump to jump, readjusting the jump cups and lowering the wooden crossbars.
"Guess who'll be here this afternoon," Alexis said as she rode past Chloe. She gave the thumbs up signal and smiled with excitement.
"I have good news too," Chloe replied with an equally big smile.
Chloe exhaled deeply as she squeezed Sunshine's sides. Her smile suddenly faded, replaced with the look of total concentration. The Haflinger cross mare walked quietly toward the gate. The warm May weather had already chased away the last of her wintry red coat, leaving her with a coppery golden glow. In the bright sunlight, the mare appeared to be a dark palomino. But it was the telltale flaxen mane that confirmed Sunshine's true color was sorrel.
"You'll do fine," encouraged Dexter as Chloe passed through the arena gate. He swung the gate shut until it latched, then jogged over to help Mrs. Carter with the jumps.
In the meantime, Chloe had begun trotting Sunshine around the arena to loosen up the mare. She had done a full warm-up in the indoor arena while Alexis was having her lesson. But the indoor arena was too small for any serious jumping. Chloe had been working and waiting for months for the day she could jump the outdoor course.
"Keep your heels down and eyes forward," reminded Mrs. Carter as Chloe jogged, then cantered over the ground poles leading up to the twelve inch baby jumps. "Shorten your reins just a little and focus on the center of the jumps."
Finally, Mrs. Carter sent her to the rail to walk for a few minutes while the jumps were readjusted. By now the sun had climbed higher in the sky. There was little shade left from the mix of maple and pine trees that flanked the east side of the arena. Chloe used the sleeve of her green t-shirt to wipe the sweat from her eyes. It didn't help that she had forgotten to change to a light-colored helmet cover now that they were riding outdoors.
When the eight jumps had been raised to 18 inches, Dexter climbed over the fence and stood by the gate. Alexis had returned from putting Flash away.
"OK, Chloe," called Mrs. Carter. "Remember to keep your weight in your heels and your eyes forward."
Chloe took a deep breath and asked Sunshine to trot. She approached the first jump, but Chloe was unprepared for the new height. The mare jumped a split second before Chloe leaned forward.
"Keep your weight in your heels!" scolded Mrs. Carter. "You just bumped her mouth."
The second and third jumps didn't go any better. Sunshine tried to evade them.
"Good job," Mrs. Carter said when Chloe smoothly glided over the fourth and fifth jumps.
Chloe grimaced when she made mistakes on the next two jumps, but she nailed the last jump.
"Excellent," called Mrs. Carter. "Let's end here."
Chloe looked over to her friends standing by the gate. Dexter gave her the thumbs up signal, but Alexis was too busy texting.
"They're hooking up their trailer," said Alexis as soon as Chloe rode through the gate. "Ryder will be here in about an hour!"
"I just got a summer job!" Chloe exclaimed as she hastily dismounted . "I'm going to babysit for Emily Parker's niece about three hours a day. She has twins, so I'll have enough money to buy Sunshine by the end of June!"
The girls joined hands and jumped up and down.
"This is going to be the best summer ever," they both squealed in unison.
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Alexis leaned against the barn door and watched as Chloe and Dexter rode single file along the outside of the arena fence. Alexis had her smartphone pressed tightly into the palm of her hand.
"Have you seen Chloe?" Mrs. Carter barked from up the aisle. She was walking quickly toward the back door of the barn.
"She just left on a trail ride," said Alexis.
By this time Mrs. Carter had reached the barn door. She glared at the two riders, who were already out of earshot.
"Damnit," she grumbled. "Chloe didn't finish the water buckets. They're still soaking in the wash rack and I need to bring the horses in now."
"I told Chloe that I'd do them for her," Alexis quickly lied.
As she spoke, the anger disappeared from Mrs. Carter's face only to be replaced by a look of puzzlement.
"You offered to scrub and refill the water buckets?" Mrs. Carter questioned her. "You do realize your parents pay board so you don't have to do barn chores."
"She helped me with my English paper," explained Alexis, fibbing again. “I owe her one.”
Mrs. Carter gave Alexis a stern look.
"Besides,” Alexis said with dramatic overtones. “It's getting kinda hot and I know all the school horses got quite a workout this morning. I'd just feel terrible taking one of them on a trail ride. So I figured as long as I was stuck here..."
"Yeah, I don't understand why your parents won't let you take Flash on the trails," said Mrs. Carter, with a shake of her head. She was still looking out the back door of the stable and missed the sly smile that momentarily escaped from Alexis' lips. "Honestly, it would do that horse a world of good to get out of the arena once in a while."
"Well," said Mrs. Carter as she turned to head back up the aisle. "I'm bringing the horses in now, so I need those buckets scrubbed and filled right away."
Alexis groaned inwardly as she looked at the twenty-eight stalls that lined both sides of the aisle. The smartphone she was holding began vibrating. She glanced down to see the message that flashed up on the screen. It said, See you soon ;)
Dexter stared across the creek as he impatiently tapped his fingers on his thigh. He sighed, then turned his horse and trotted up the bank to catch up with Chloe.
They rode down the trail in silence. The damp shade of the woods felt cool in comparison to the hot May sun that had beat down upon them earlier.
After a few minutes, Dexter took a deep breath and asked, "Hey, do you want to be my riding buddy for the June trail ride? Alexis will probably sign up with Ryder."
Chloe shrugged. "I don't know, Dex. Lexi and I always partner up. Maybe Ryder won't even want to come."
"Yeah, right!" snickered Dexter. "It'd take a crowbar to separate those two."
"So what is this Ryder like?" she asked.
"He's a tool," Dexter replied. "I don't get what Alexis sees in him."
"So I'm guessing you won't want to be his partner for the trail ride." Chloe stated sarcastically.
"Heck no!" Dexter replied. "So what do you say? You and me?"
Chloe fiddled with the buckle on her reins. "Dexter, you know that there is somebody else...you know, that I like..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he muttered. "Mr. Perfect from horse camp."
"His name is Davis," stated Chloe.
If this Davis guy is so into you, why doesn't he ever come around?" asked Dexter. He swatted feverishly at a swarm of black flies that had followed them up from the creek. "How come I never see you texting him?"
Chloe started to say something, but Dexter cut her off.
"C'mon Chloe," Dexter pleaded. "Give me a chance. I'll even help you with the water buckets when we get back."
Chloe didn't answer. She was looking at the sterling silver horse charm that always hung from the chain around her neck.
Is Alexis dating Chloe's boyfriend from horse camp? Find out in the next episode of Stirrups: One is Silver