James was already there when Mandy got down to Redpaths field just before seven oclock. He was sitting on the churchyard wall waiting for her. "Its looking good," he said.
Mandy looked around. It certainly was looking good. There were several tents up already, flags were fluttering from trestle tables set up around the edges of the field, and everywhere there were groups of people hammering stalls together, roping off areas of the field, setting up raffle stands, and piling bales of hay into tiers for the horse jumping. Over on the far side Mandy could see her grandfather and Walter Pickard. She waved to them, and Grandpa called her over.
"Ready for some hard work?" he said as they reached them.
Mandy and James nodded, and Grandpa handed them each a bucket of water and a brush. "Right," he said. "The first thing to do is get these jumps washed down. They have to be in tiptop condition for Saturday."
"Even the one made out of hay bales?" James joked.
Grandpa grinned. "No, I suppose you can leave that one," he said.
Mandy and James started to work. The jumps were spaced around the area that had been roped off for the pony trials. They scrubbed at them with the long-handled brushes. The red-and-white poles stretched across their supports became brighter. Even the painted bricks of the "wall" jumps shone brick red. It was hard work, but they were enjoying being part of the team working to make the fair a success.
They had almost finished when Mandy heard a car pull up. She turned to see a dark green horse trailer towed by a blue sports car pull onto the field. Susan. That was her dads car.
Mandy put down her brush. "James," she said, "Susans here with Prince."
James looked up from a five-bar gate he was scrubbing. "Just so long as she doesnt get these jumps dirty," he said. "Im exhausted."
Mr. Collins was unlocking the horse trailer and letting down the ramp. Mandy stood, brush in hand, and watched as Prince stepped delicately down the ramp and onto the grass. She saw his head go up sniffing the air, and then he coughed. "Hes coughing again," she said to James. "He was fine this morning. I wish Dad had been able to come down after all."
James looked at her. "You know what your dad said. Prince has always been a healthy pony."
Mandy pursed her lips. "He doesnt sound too healthy now."
Susan took Princes halter and led him to the edge of the ring, tethering him to a post. Then she walked off toward where Grandpa and Walter were talking to some other helpers.
"Come on," said Mandy. "Lets go and see him."
Dropping her brush, she sprinted across to where Prince was tethered. As she approached he coughed again but not as deeply as he had before. She felt his flank. It was warm and dry. As she ran her hand gently down the ponys side, some hay dust rose from his coat in a little cloud.
"He needs a good brushing," said James, but Mandy wasnt listening. She had her ear pressed close to Princes flank. She could hear the breath deep in his chest. Was it her imagination or did it sound odd, not steady the way it usually was? She turned a troubled face to James.
"Is there something wrong with him?" said James.
Mandy just shook her head in puzzlement and continued stroking Princes flank. As she did so she felt his breath steady. She rubbed his nose, and his ears twitched toward her. "How are you, boy?" she said.
Prince nuzzled her shoulder and whinnied. "Thats odd," said Mandy. "He seems all right now. Yet Im sure his breathing was funny before."
"Here comes Susan," said James.
Susan was striding across the field toward them. She was carrying a saddle. "Im going to try the jumps now," she said.
"Ill help you saddle up," said Mandy.
For a moment she thought Susan was going to refuse her help. But Susan just said, "If you like," and slung the saddle over Princes back.
As they adjusted the girth and let down the stirrups Mandy said carefully, "He was coughing again."
"I know," said Susan. She looked puzzled. Mandy tried to hide her surprise. Maybe she wasnt going to yell at her for interfering. "But Jim let him out for a while today you saw him. Maybe he got chilled." She looked at the pony. "But hes all right now, isnt he?"
Mandy had to agree. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the pony. "See how he goes over the jumps," she said. "If you dont think hes fit you dont have to do it. You dont have to enter him in the trials at all."
Susan looked at her in disbelief. "Not enter him?" she said. "Who said anything about not entering him? Of course Im going to enter him. I have to. Im going to make Mom so proud of me shell " She stopped.
"What?" said Mandy, but just then Grandpa and Walter arrived. What was it Susan had been going to say?
"Why dont you walk him around the jumps first," Grandpa was saying to Susan. "Just to see if we have the spacing about right. Then we can put him to the fences."
Mandy watched as Susan led Prince away. First she showed him each jump, letting him take his time investigating it, getting to know it. Then she got up on him and walked him around the course, just skirting the fences, pacing them, getting the feel of the layout. And only then did she urge him into a trot and then a canter around the outskirts of the field before bringing him up to the jumps at the gallop.
The first two jumps went smoothly. Prince sailed over them, his tail arching gracefully, his hooves clearing the bars by inches. At the third he was wrongfooted, and Susan turned him easily aside and slowed him to a trot before trying it again. Once again he was wrongfooted, half a pace out on the approach. Susan slowed him to a walk this time.
"I think this one is a little off," she called to Grandpa. "The angle coming into the fence doesnt seem right."
Grandpa and Walter went into a huddle, then moved the jump back a little and to the side so that the angle was wider. "Try that," Grandpa called back to her.
Susan took a long, slow approach to the fence, giving Prince plenty of time to refuse, not forcing him. He flew over it like a dream.
The only other fence that gave Prince any trouble was the fifth jump, the one made of hay bales. He simply refused it. Susan was clearly puzzled. She tried him three times in all. The third time Prince took the jump but he wasnt happy. His head came up straining at the bit as he came over.
After that Prince had no trouble. Susan leaned over and patted him as they cleared the last jump. Mandy saw her bend to whisper in his ear. Prince seemed absolutely fine, hardly out of breath, but then Susan had taken the jumps easily, giving him time where he needed it, not pushing him on from jump to jump
"Shes good, isnt she?" said James.
Mandy nodded. She was surprised. Susan boasted so much about everything, it was hard to believe she really was good at show jumping. "Shes better than Barry Prescott," Mandy said. Barry sometimes forced Star.
"Look," said Mandy. Susan had taken Prince right around the outside of the jumps. She was going to go for a full circuit. Mandy saw her turn Prince at the far end of the field, gather the reins firmly in her hands, and point him toward the first jump.
Mandy held her breath. Susan and the little pony seemed to melt into each other. Looking at her as she cleared first one fence, then the next, Mandy couldnt imagine Susan ever falling off or Prince ever failing to clear a jump.
Then as they thundered up the field toward Mandy and James, Mandy saw Princes head go up. He was trying to turn away from the hay bales. Horse and rider faced them head on. Mandy saw Susans mouth set, saw her gather the reins more tightly, touch her heels to the ponys flanks and he was over. But his eyes were rolling.
Susan and Prince were around the top of the field, heading for the last three jumps. Prince cleared them, but Mandy was running toward the finish with James behind her.
"Whats wrong?" he yelled as he pelted after her.
"Didnt you see his eyes?" Mandy shouted back. "He didnt want to try that jump. He isnt happy."
Susan was drawing Prince to a walk as they arrived. She slowed him to a halt. "Pretty good," she said, "but he should be able to do even better."
Mandy laid a hand on Princes flank. She felt his chest plunge and ripple.
"It was too much for him," she panted. "Look at him. Hes so out of breath."
Susan looked down at her. Her smile had disappeared. "Oh, come on," she said. "Hes just jumped a clear round. You would be out of breath if you had done that. Youre out of breath as it is and youve only run half the length of the course."
Mandy bit her lip. It sounded so reasonable, but she had watched Jane jump Prince many times. She had never seen Prince as out of breath as this.
"Shes got a point," said James.
Mandy turned to him. "Whose side are you on?" she asked.
James looked surprised. "Nobodys," he said. "It isnt about taking sides, is it?"
Susan smirked down at Mandy. "It is as far as Mandys concerned." She patted Princes neck. "Come on, Prince," she said. "At least I think you did well even though some people think you arent up to it."
"It isnt that," said Mandy. Then she stopped. After all, it was what she was saying that Prince wasnt up to it.
Grandpa and Walter came up to them.
"That was fine," said Walter, "and thanks for your help, Susan."
Susan smiled down at him. "Hes a good jumper, isnt he?" she said.
Walter smiled. "He is," he said.
"Hes a great jumper," said Grandpa, but Mandy saw him looking at the pony. Prince was still breathing heavily, and Grandpa was looking at his flanks, puzzled.
"Yes," said Walter. "The only better jumper around here is that bay gelding of Barry Prescotts. He usually walks off with the prize in the jumping. Hes very fast."
Susan slid down off Prince and looked at them. "Not this year he wont," she said. "Youll see. Prince can jump faster than that. Just you wait till the fair. Now that I know he can clear the jumps, all he needs is a bit more speed."
"Susan," said Mandy.
Susan had begun to walk Prince toward the horse trailer. She turned to Mandy. "What is it now?" she said.
Mandy took a deep breath. "You wont push Prince too hard at the fair, will you?" she said.
"Because you dont think hes up to it?" said Susan scornfully. "You just cant bear to see me win. But we will win, Mandy Hope. Youll see. All he had was a little cold, and of course hes out of breath jumping. A day in a warm, dry stable and hell be fit for anything. He can go faster than that. I know he can. Barry Prescott wont win this year. I will whatever happens." And, her face grim with determination, she unsaddled Prince and led him into the horse trailer.
Mandy looked as Susan tethered the pony. There was a hay net secured at the far end of the trailer and Mandy plucked a handful and began rubbing Prince down. Then she dropped the hay to the floor of the trailer. Prince stamped and coughed. Susan turned to Mandy.
"Its just a cold," she said and, walking down the ramp, began to secure the back door of the trailer.
As Mandy turned away she saw Susans father come out of the tent at the far end of the field and begin to walk toward the car. She wandered over to where she had left Grandpa. He was still standing there. He looked thoughtful.
"Whats the matter, Grandpa?" she asked.
Grandpa scratched his head. "Im not sure," he said. "It was when I was standing there looking at Prince. It reminded me of something, but I cant for the life of me remember what it is." He shook his head. "Old age, Mandy," he said. "I must be getting on in years."
Mandy smiled, but she wasnt really paying attention. All she could think of were Susans last words. She would win, whatever happened. Mandy would speak to her father again. He was on duty at the fair. He had to look at Prince before the jumping. She hated to think what would happen if Susan rode Prince flat out. She remembered the panic and fear in Princes eyes. A cold chill seemed to settle on her heart.