"Do you know we're being watched?" James asked Mandy as they made their way along the beach.
The ponies had left their trail along the water's edge and were out of sight around the headland overlooked by the castle. As the tide came in, the waves would wash their hoofprints away.
"Where?" Mandy looked around with a start. She would see the small speck of the curragh by one of the rocky islands out to sea. Behind her, the cliffs rose almost sheer.
"From over there." James pointed back the way they had walked. "See that church up on the hill?"
She nodded. The square tower and arched windows of the sturdy building had just come into view. It perched on the cliff, surrounded by stone crosses in a small, grassy graveyard. "I can't see anyone," Mandy murmured. There were only the gulls wheeling across the windy sky.
"Look again. Past the church, right on the edge of the cliff."
She squinted hard. As the spray from the waves spattered cold drops on her bare legs, Mandy made out the figure James was pointing at.
"Yep." There was a boy standing there, looking down over Kilmore Cove. She could just pick him out, leaning against the largest stone cross, keeping her and James in his sight as they wandered along the beach. ""What's he staring at?"
James shrugged. "It's like he's keeping guard."
"The ponies." He frowned and turned his back on the unexpected sentry. "I thought we said they were wild!"
"They are," Mandy insisted. Ponies were like zebra and deer. They were flight animals who ran away when an attacker came near. That was exactly what the herd had just done. She stopped James before he could speak again. "Yes, I know, if the ponies don't have owners, why is the boy standing guard like that?"
"Exactly." James didn't like being stared at. Of all the places that the boy could have chosen in this wide open countryside, he had to pick the spot where they were. "And besides, do we know if there are any wild ponies left in Ireland?"
Mandy decided they couldn't do anything about the staring boy. She turned to catch up with James. "Maybe there are wild ponies in this part of Connemara," she suggested. "Like on Exmoor in England. It's kind of a natural park where they let ponies run free." She like the idea that there were such places. "No town, no roads..."
"No civilization!" James agreed. He took a handful of fresh sea air. "A huge park where no one can build."
"A park for wildlife."
"For ponies!" Mandy grinned. It was a wonderful possibility. "Let's find out!"
"I suppose there could still be wild ponies in Connemara," Emily Hope agreed.
The Hopes and James were walking the winding road from their vacation cottage to the village on their first evening in Drumchashel. The minute Mandy's mom and dad had returned from their boat trip, too exhausted to cook for themselves, Adam Hope had promised to treat them all to supper at Molloys. Now, with huge appetites and lots to talk about, they were heading for the village's combination pub and grocery store.
"What do you think, Dad?" Mandy asked.
"Well, if the ones you saw were true Connemaras, they would be roughly fourteen hand high and sturdy enough to cope with the mountains and rough countryside around here." He gestured toward the patchwork of fields, stretching toward peat bogs and the mountains of Benmore in the distance. "Connemaras can be any color. They're hardy and very agile. Would your ponies fit that description?"
"Exactly!" Mandy told her dad about the strong, sturdy-legged herd they'd seen.
"And intelligent," Emily Hope added. Like Adam's, her training at vet school had given her plenty of knowledge about horse and pony breeds.
"These ponies were really smart!" James insisted. "We had them sort of trapped down a narrow inlet. But the main mare kept them together and didn't let them panic."
"Connemara ponies are calm," Adam Hope agreed. "And they have a reputation for being excellent jumpers."
"We didn't see that," Mandy admitted. "But they could gallop like the wind." She recalled the thunder of hooves as they passed by.
"I'm sure they were Connemaras," James decided.
"And wild," Mandy concluded.
"Well, let's ask in Molloys and find out for sure." Dr. Emily smiled as the plate-glass shop front came into view along the single row of terraced cottages that lined the village street. Each house front was painted a different color, cream, blue or pink, giving the street a holiday feel.
The name MOLLOYS was written in big, broad, gold letters above the door. The window to the left was stacked with boxes of cornflakes and cans of baked beans; the one to the right of the red doorway with bottles of whiskey and beer. A sign outside said FOOD SERVED ALL DAY.
"French fries!" Adam sighed. He held the door open and let the scent of cooking drift out. "I'm starving!"
"You'll get fat," Mandy's mom teased.
Inside, the shop part of Molloys was all to the left of the door. There were shelves from floor to ceiling, stocked with sugar, dried fruit, cereals, cans of meat and vegetables. The pub part was to the right. Tall stools stood alongside the wooden and brass bar. Polished pump handles gleamed. And behind the bar, shelves were lined with glasses of all sizes waiting to be filled.
"Good evening." A small, thin man greeted them cheerily from behind the bar. "You must be the family that's staying at Cashel Cottages? It's your first day Drumcashel, I hear. Well, you'll be thirsty and hungry after your boat trip out to Inishmore!"
Mandy stared at James. The barman seemed to know everything about them. His gray eyes were hidden behind deep lines and bushy eyebrows, but they had a knowing twinkle.
The few customers already leaning at the bar made room for the Hopes and James.
"You'll be liking the weather we're having," one said to Dr. Emily. "Sunny and fine, so it is."
James stared back at Mandy. If this windy, misty day had been good summer weather for Drumcashel, what was bad weather going to be like?
"I'm Patrick Molloy, but you can call me Molloy like everyone else. You'll be wanting fries with everything," the owner of the bar said without pausing for breath.
"And you're a mind reader," Adam Hope said quickly.
"No one can resist the Molloys' cooking," another customer remarked. "Patrick's been feeding us for as long as most of us can remember, and before that it was his father and his father before him."
"When he's not riding horses, that is."
By now the conversation was well underway. From somewhere in a dark corner, amid the leather seats lining the walls, an old jukebox came to life, playing an ancient pop song.
"Horses?" Mandy stepped up onto a stool at the bar and perched there eagerly. "Do you ride?"
Molloy shrugged. "Not anymore. You're talking about me in my young days."
"He rode his fair share of winners." The same customer filled Mandy in by pointing to a row of faded rosettes behind the bar.
"Racing?" James joined Mandy.
"Over the hurdles," Molloy said modestly. "Steeplechasing was my game. It's been in the family for generations. Broke all the fingers in my right hand, three on my left. Broke my left collarbone three times, my right leg twice. Held together with steel pins from head to toe, I am."
Mandy and James stared at the spry, slight man as he went to attend to their order of food.
"Brought up with horses, he was," their informant told them. "Rode them on the beach near where you're staying, long before he could even walk. Not much more than a babe in arms and he was up on a pony's back; no saddle, no bridle, nor bit."
"Really?" Mandy's mouth dropped open. Then she noticed her dad wink at her. She decided to change tack. "Have there always been ponies on Drumcashel Beach?"
"Has there always been rain on the Benmore mountains?" The young man answered with a question. He spoke slowly, in a singsong voice, as if he had all the time in the world. "Drumcashel is practically the home of the Connemara pony. He came in with the Celts long ago when they raided these shores. They tamed him and used him for jobs around the farm and for pack work. That would be over a thousand years ago. And he's still here and will be until long after we're all pushing up the daisies!"
"And are there still herds of wild ones?" James got to the point. "We think we saw some by the point this afternoon when the tide was coming in."
"On Drumcashel Beach?" The reply came after a long pause. "That would be the strawberry roan's herd you spotted."
"That's right." Mandy nodded hard. "She seemed to be the leader."
"They're Sean Malone's ponies, aren't they?" another bystander chipped in.
"Oh." James frowned. So they weren't wild, after all.
"We call them Sean's ponies because the boy spends all the days he stays here with his father looking out for them. He's known for his interest in the ponies, see. But they don't belong to him. They're wild enough, believe me."
"That must have been the boy we saw," James muttered to Mandy.
"His father, Gerry Malone, runs a training stable out near Lough Caher, but the two of them don't get along. Mr. And Mrs. Malone are divorced, and the boy is away at school most of the time. He arrived here yesterday, as a matter of fact." The gossip flowed more quickly from the second bystander. "The boy's about your age," he told James and Mandy. "Kind of a loner, but everyone around here knows him."
Mandy and James took in every scrap of information, turning it over as the talk subsided.
"Fries coming up!" Molloy said, reappearing from the kitchen. And then it was food and the serious business of eating an enormous hot supper.