Monday, May 20, 2013

First 5 Pages May Workshop - Campen Rev 2


Genre: Upper Middle Grade, coming-of-age story

Title: Riding Double

Dad drove slowly through the Malibu hills, ignoring the line of cars bunched up behind us. Our old truck couldn’t go any faster, not while pulling our horse trailer along the steep, curving roadway.

“There!” I pointed at a sign for Creekside Riding Club just as the engine started thudding loudly, a signal it was overheating. Dad turned onto the Club’s gravel driveway and coasted to a stop under a canyon oak that stood beside the main riding arena. I leaned forward and cranked down my window, thankful for the tree’s shade.

Dad opened his door and stretched out his legs. “This pony sounds like a good deal,” he said. “Even better, the seller doesn’t know beans about horses. We can use the dead pony story on him.”

I sighed, thumping back against the seat. Dad looked over and grinned at me. “Aw now, it’s just a little play-acting to get the price down. All part of the horse-trading business—right, partner?”

“Right, partner,” I said, trying to sound game.

In the riding arena six pokey old lesson horses trotted in a dusty circle, ridden by girls my age dressed in stylish riding breeches, clean white shirts, and velvet hunt caps. None of them could ride worth a hoot—they jerked and bounced, their elbows flapping like chicken wings.

I was wearing blue jeans and a pink tee-shirt, with my hair braided in pigtails. Ridiculous, considering I’d turned fourteen last month. But on horse-shopping trips Dad wanted me to look like a child, because sellers got soft-hearted about girls and ponies. A price might drop fifty dollars if I acted sad when Dad said a pony cost too much.

A fancy station wagon with fake wood paneling on the side drove past us. The driver parked and walked toward our truck, stepping carefully around a pile of horse manure in the dirt. Instead of boots, he wore loafers with little tassels on them. “That’s our guy,” Dad said. “Dead pony story, definitely.”

Dad jumped out of the truck, smiling like a goof. “Hi, I’m Joe Coogan. This is my daughter, Sunny.”

“James Smith.” The man shook Dad’s hand. “The pony’s this way. We bought her two years ago but now my daughter’s lost interest. She hasn’t ridden in months.”

Dad started his act. “Heck, I wish Sunny would lose interest. I don’t know much about horses, I grow oranges.” Another part of the act; it was our neighbors, the Frantelli’s, who owned an orange grove. “Still, she wants a pony. She had a great one, a real trooper. He died last week.”

That was my cue. I looked down, dragging my boots in the dirt, pretending to feel sad about a pony who never existed.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Smith said. He placed his hand briefly on my shoulder as we walked behind the barn to a small dirt paddock. The little mare inside pricked up her ears, watching us. She had knots in her mane and mud caked on her side, but she was cute, a bright chestnut color with four flashy white socks. She stood at least fourteen hands high, a large pony, which was good because I took after Dad in height.

“Here’s Cricket,” Mr. Smith said. He didn’t make a move to open the gate.

“She’s a pretty little thing.” Dad picked up a halter that hung on the fence and handed it to me. “Can Sunny bring her out?”

Cricket acted like a brat, yanking at the lead rope and pawing the ground while I brushed her. She pinned her ears, threatening to bite when I tightened the girth on her saddle. It didn’t bother me. The horses we bought weren’t perfect—that’s why we got them cheap. Some of them had been mistreated, but most had simply been mishandled, allowed to act rude for too long. Horses are geniuses at figuring out who’s the leader. If you don’t act like a leader, they’re happy to take over. It doesn’t mean they’re bad.

I led Cricket as we all walked toward the arena, where the riding class now clustered at one end of the ring, taking turns trotting over a small jump. I heard the clunk of lazy hooves hitting the wooden jump pole as the lesson horses ambled over it. Cricket jerked her head, tugging at the reins, trying to walk faster.

Mr. Smith stopped and leaned on the arena fence while Dad walked inside with me. “This pony is half-wild with boredom,” he said in a low voice. “She’s gonna act up—let her.” He cupped his hands and gave me a leg up.

Cricket zoomed off like her tail was on fire when my butt hit the saddle. I gave her a loose rein—it wasn’t fair to start working her right away, not after she’d been cooped up in her tiny paddock for months. She cantered a half-dozen fast, large circles before stretching her head down and snorting, a sign she was starting to relax. I loved these first moments with a horse, figuring out their personality, finding a way to work together. I stroked her neck and took up the reins; she tossed her head but listened, slowing to a trot. We circled in both directions, halted, backed up, then cantered again.

Dad arched his eyebrows in a silent question when I rode by. I nodded and settled down to the part of my job I hated. I needed to get Cricket to do something bad, something Dad could use to bargain with Mr. Smith. Fooling people was one thing, but fooling a horse seemed downright puny. Horses never lied, or pretended to be something they weren’t.

I asked Cricket to trot, then shortened the reins, making the bit bump her mouth with every stride. I squeezed with my legs. I was asking her to do two different things at once. Pulling on the reins meant stop; my legs said go.

Cricket pranced sideways, trying to figure out what I wanted. Then she got mad. She flattened her ears and did the best thing possible. She bucked. Not a big buck, just a little crow-hop. I could have stayed on, easy, but let myself topple over her shoulder into the soft dirt.

“You OK Sunny?” Dad called.

“Yes,” I yelled. I stood up, making a big show of brushing dirt off my jeans while Cricket trotted toward the other horses. The lesson girls stared at me open-mouthed, like they’d never seen anyone fall before. I hated this part, too, acting like I couldn’t ride. I trudged to the end of the ring and caught Cricket.

Back at the railing, Mr. Smith was apologizing to Dad. “I’ve never seen her do that before.”

“Gosh,” said Dad. “I didn’t realize she bucked. Three hundred dollars seems high—we’d have to find a trainer to work with her. Do you like her, Sunny?”

“Oh yes, Daddy,” I said, stroking Cricket’s nose. That part was true. I just wished she was bigger. I was tired of riding ponies too small for me, ones I knew would be sold as soon as possible.

Mr. Smith frowned. One tasseled loafer tapped in the dirt. I knew what he was thinking—he’d have to keep paying the stable bill until Cricket sold, whether or not his daughter rode. A fancy stable like Creekside probably cost a hundred dollars a month, at least.

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