Authors: Stacy Gregg
Issie turned back to the window once more and immediately jumped back in fright. Right outside the room there were two coal-black eyes in a ghostly face, staring straight at her!
This was what happened when you watched silly movies! Issie had got herself totally freaked and had begun to imagine a werewolf lurking outside the window. What she hadn't been prepared for was a pony. But there he was, his snowy white coat taking on a pinkish glow from the neon light, making the sight of him strange and ghostly, but no less wonderful.
It was Mystic.
Issie reached out and pressed her palm up against the glass.
“Hey, Mystic,” she whispered to the dapple-grey pony. “It's good to see you.”
Even as she said the words, though, Issie knew that Mystic's appearance in the middle of the night wasn't a good thing. The grey gelding only ever came when there was trouble. He'd come to warn her that something was very, very wrong.
Her thoughts focused immediately on Comet. Was the skewbald in danger? That coyote she'd heard howling could be closer than she thought. Would a coyote be bold enough to attack a horse?
Issie made a quick grab for her coat and headed out the door. She'd left Comet and Liberty with their feeds just a couple of hours ago. They'd both been fine when she'd said goodnight. She only hoped that they were still OK now.
Mystic was waiting for her right outside the door of her motel room. Her heart was racing as she reached his side. He nickered softly to her as she stretched out a hand to stroke his velvet-soft muzzle. “Hey, boy,” she whispered to her pony, “it's been a long time.” She put her arms round his neck, and pressed her face into the coarse, ropey strands of his long, silver-grey mane, hugging him tight. Mystic let out a tense whinny. He shook his head, freeing himself from her embrace. He flicked his head in agitation. They needed to go!
Suddenly the grey pony turned on his hocks and set off at a swift trot, heading across the motel forecourt, turning the corner round the end of the shell-pink motel buildings and veering round the back to the stables.
Issie sprinted after him, running as hard as she could, but the pony was too fast for her to keep up. By the time she rounded the corner into the courtyard behind the motel buildings, Mystic was already heading for the far end of the covered yards.
Plunged into the darkness of the yards, Issie suddenly found herself struggling to see anything at all. The lights had switched off automatically at 10 p.m. and the whole of the enclosure was in blackout.
“Mystic!” Issie hissed. “Where are you?”
As her eyes adjusted she could make out the silhouettes of horses in their stalls, moving about restlessly. Comet and Liberty's stall was at the very end of the yards and she headed there now, groping her way along the railings and trying to recall where the light switch had been. Then, in the blackness she thought she caught a glimpse of Mystic. He was pacing up and down beside Comet's stall and the skewbald was rearing and snorting, working himself up into a complete state, trying to get free. The rails were too tall for him to jump so he was skidding to a halt each time he reached the barrier, slamming against the wooden bars with his powerful chest, trying to force his way to freedom.
“Hey, hey! It's OK, Comet, I'mâ” Issie was hurrying towards the skewbald when a dark figure suddenly rose up right in front of her. There was a man in the stalls!
Issie let out a shriek as the man clambered through the rails and barged into her, knocking her roughly to the ground.
Taken by surprise, she fell backwards. She threw out her hands to break her fall, but as she came down, her head struck hard against one of the wooden rails of the stall behind her. Her body slumped to the ground and everything went black.
Issie had no idea how long she was knocked out. All she knew was that when she woke up she was lying on the ground, with a massive throbbing pain in the back of her head and there was the dark shadow of a man standing over her. She tried to struggle to her feet and that was when she felt the bite of sharp metal against her chest. “Don't move!” she heard a voice say. There was a blinding glare as the stable lights flicked on and then she saw the face of Marcus Pearce staring down at her. He was shaking and wide-eyed as he stood with a pitchfork in his hands â the sharp prongs pressed against Issie's T-shirt, aiming directly at her heart.
“Marcus!” Issie couldn't believe it. “What are you doing?”
Marcus seemed just as shocked as Issie. He immediately dropped the pitchfork and extended a hand to help her back up again to her feet.
“I'm so sorry,” Marcus said. “I didn't realise it was you. I heard noises and came out to check on the horses and thought I saw someone by the stalls. I grabbed that pitchfork to defend myself.”
“There was somebody out here,” Issie said as she dusted herself off. “A man was in with the horses. He knocked me over.” She frowned at Marcus. “You didn't see him?”
Marcus shook his head. “You were the only one here when I arrived. Did you get a good look at him?”
“Not really,” Issie admitted. “It was way too dark to make out his face.”
“Are you OK?” Marcus asked. “You're not hurt?”
“I think I must have been knocked out for a minute,” Issie said, “but I'm OK now, just a sore head.”
“Are you sure you're all right?” Marcus asked.
“I'm fine,” Issie insisted. “We'd better check the horses.”
Comet and Liberty were still inside their stalls. Both of them had clearly been terrified by the midnight intruder and they paced anxiously back and forth, refusing to calm down.
Issie stood on the other side of the railings and watched as Comet trembled and twitched, his head held high and the whites of his eyes showing, his nostrils flared wide. She felt exactly the same as her pony. Her heart refused to stop racing.
She calmed herself, taking some deep breaths, and it was only when she felt her pulse slowing at last that she knew she was ready to deal with the stressed-out Comet. She unbolted the gate and entered the stall, making her way slowly towards the skewbald. Comet was still freaked, but he was listening to her as she spoke to him, her voice a soft, lilting sing-song as she stepped closer to reassure him that it was all going to be OK, that he was safe, she was there with him. The skewbald let her get a hand on his halter and she clasped on the lead rope, leading him to the rail and tying him up so that she could run her hands down his legs, feeling for the heat or bump that would indicate an injury. She worked her way all over his body until she was satisfied that there was nothing wrong. Marcus, meanwhile, was in the stall beside her with Liberty, examining the mare.
“Comet's fine,” she said to Marcus. “There's not a mark on him.”
“Liberty looks OK too,” Marcus confirmed. “But she's pretty shaken up.”
He cast a worried gaze around the yard. “You know, I never thought about it before, but you could walk straight in here and steal a horse. The security at this place leaves a lot to be desired.”
He looked at Issie. “What were you doing out here by yourself in the first place?”
“I heard noises too,” Issie said. “I thought maybe it was coyotes.” She didn't mention Mystic. She had figured out long ago that the pony was meant to be her secret, and by now the grey gelding was nowhere to be seen.
Marcus looked around the yard. Then he sat himself down on the hay bales in the corner next to Liberty's stall, took off his jacket and rolled it into a ball to make a pillow before he lay down.
“What are you doing?”
“I'm getting settled in for the night,” Marcus said. “There's always a chance that he'll come back, and I'm not leaving Liberty on her own. If anything happened to her then Mr Valmont would make sure I never worked at his stables again.”
Marcus got himself comfy on the hay bale, tucking up his knees so his feet didn't dangle off the end. “You go inside,” he told Issie. “Get some sleep. I'll keep an eye on them.”
“Marcus, you can't stay out here by yourselfâ¦” Issie tried to change his mind.
“I'll be all right,” Marcus said.
“But it's freezing!” Issie said.
“I'll be fine. Goodnight, Issie,” Marcus replied firmly.
Issie went back to her room in a huff. If Marcus thought he was going to be a hero while she went back to her room and tucked herself into bed he had another think coming! She grabbed the blankets off her bed, and a pillow, plus two of the leftover chocolate bars from the vending machine, and went back outside.
“Who's there?” she heard Marcus call out as she walked back across the yards.
“It's me.” Issie threw him one of the blankets along with a chocolate bar and then flopped down on a second hay bale alongside him. “You must be crazy if you think I'm leaving you here all alone. What if he comes back?”
Marcus picked up the chocolate bar. “I'll take the provisions, but I don't need the backup.”
“You can't stop me sleeping out here,” Issie said, plumping her pillow on top of the hay bale. “It's a free country.”
Marcus was exasperated. “Are you always going to argue with everything I say?”
Issie chewed her chocolate bar thoughtfully. “Maybe.”
Marcus laughed. “I think you just agreed with me. But I'm not sure.”
“Goodnight, Marcus,” Issie said, snuggling down under her blanket.
In the stall beside them Comet nickered softly, adding his own âgoodnight'. The skewbald craned his head over the rail and Issie felt his warm, horsey breath tickling her toes, which were sticking out from beneath the blanket.
“Comet! Quit it!”
The skewbald went back to nibbling at his hay net and Issie lay back and listened to the gentle sound of her pony's snorts as he chewed his hay, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep.
Aside from giving her the worst case of bed-hair that she'd ever had, Issie's hay bale proved to be a surprisingly good mattress. She woke up at dawn as the light came pouring into the yard. Marcus must have already gone back to his room. Issie checked Comet's hay net and water and then headed back to her room where Stella was waiting for her.
“You stayed out all night with Marcus Pearce?” Stella was stunned when Issie told her where she'd been.
“You make it sound like a date!” Issie said. “We both slept out in the stables to keep an eye on the horses because of the intruder.”
“Issie!” Stella was horrified. “There's a stalker on the loose and you go off and hang out with Marcus, leaving me alone back here! Did you even think about me at all?”
Issie shook her head in disbelief. “Stella, I think you were safe. I'm pretty sure it was the horses that they were after.”
“Well, you should have woken me,” Stella sniffed. “You know I hate to miss out on stuff.” She grabbed her coat. “Come on, we're meeting Tom at the diner for breakfast.”
Avery and Marcus were occupying a booth together at the diner when the girls arrived. Marcus had already filled him in on the night's dramatic events.
“This can't have been a random attempt,” Avery said. “The fact that they went straight for Comet and Liberty's stall makes me think that whoever this was, they knew our horses and they were targeting them.”
Marcus shook his head. “No offence, Tom, I'm sure Comet is a terrific pony, but I don't think the horse thief was after him. The chances are far more likely that they were after Liberty. She's worth a lot of money.”
Issie couldn't help feeling a little insulted by Marcus's comment. “Comet is worth a lot too,” she told him. “I got offered twenty-five thousand dollars for him by Ginty McLintoch, and that was years ago. He must be worth at least five times that by now.”
Marcus nodded politely and took a bite of his bagel. “Well I guess it depends on what you mean by a lot of money.”
“Well what do
mean?” Issie asked him.
Marcus swallowed his bite and then said, “Mr Valmont has Liberty insured for three million dollars.”
The whole table fell silent.
“Ohmygod!” Stella nearly choked on her toast. “If Liberty is worth that much then she should have been sleeping in the motel room and you should have been in the stables in the first place!”
“I know!” Marcus said. “That's why I said Mr Valmont would go berserk if anything happened to her.”
Marcus raised his hand to wave to the waitress, who brought over a refill of coffee and his bill.
“I'm sorry,” Marcus said, downing his coffee hastily and standing up. “I should get going. I'm supposed to make it to Little Rock by sunset. I'd better load Liberty up and head off.”
He shook hands with Tom and then smiled at Issie. “I'll see you and Comet in Kentucky, OK?”
“Take care,” Issie said, smiling back.
Stella's eyes flitted suspiciously as she noticed Issie watching Marcus leave the diner.
“Are you sure nothing romantic went on between you two?” she asked.
“Nothing happened, Stella,” Issie groaned.
“Oh yeah?” Stella narrowed her gaze. “Then why do you have bits of hay bale stuck in your hair?”
“Duh, because I slept on a hay bale?” Issie rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Stella. There's nothing going on between me and Marcus Pearce.”
Even as she said the words out loud, though, Issie knew that they weren't true. There was
between her and Marcus. From the moment they had met he had infuriated her!
“Marcus Pearce is the last boy on earth that I would ever get involved with,” Issie said emphatically.
Years later, Stella would remind Issie of exactly what she'd said in the diner. But right now that future was still to come, and Issie had no idea how important Marcus Pearce would be, or that his horse would change her life forever.