Victory and the All-Stars Academy, page 9
Avery nodded. “I’m sorry that the girls forgot to tell us, Mr Murphy. I’ve got livestock on my place at home—not as many sheep as you’ve got, just a couple of ewes to keep the grass down—but trust me, I know what damage a rogue dog can do. If you give us your mobile number then we’ll make sure we call you the moment we see the dog on this property.”
Digger Murphy grunted a thank you. “I’m putting the sheep in the blackberry paddock again for the rest of the week. I’m going to sleep up there on the back of the ute and keep watch at night. If that rotten beggar so much as puts a paw in that paddock, I’ll shoot it.” He made this threat in the same deadpan drawl he always used, not raising his voice or getting agitated, but making it quite clear that he meant business. Issie remembered the shotgun on the front seat of the truck and the box of ammunition next to it, waiting to be used.
“Righto,” Digger Murphy straightened his Akubra with a formal nod to Tara and Avery, and then headed back towards his ute. “I’ve got to get this carcass back home, so I won’t keep you any longer.”
He jumped into the front seat and gave them a wave as he turned the ignition and drove off. As the ute headed up the driveway in a cloud of dust, Issie was already running down the stairs of the verandah and heading for the stables. She was sorry that another of Digger’s sheep had been attacked and felt dreadful when she saw the carcass on the back of the ute. But maybe, just maybe, this was good news. Wombat was down at the stables right now. He had been locked in last night. In fact, he had been locked in every night since the girls found him. And if he was locked away in the stables, then there was no way he could have been responsible for attacking Digger Murphy’s sheep.
Issie was nearly doubled over with a stitch when she reached the heavy wooden stable door. It had been left open last night, but the stalls inside were bolted shut. The stall where Wombat was sleeping was at the far end of the stable with the bottom half of the Dutch door bolted shut and the top half left open.
“Wombat?” Issie called him. “It’s me, boy! I haven’t got you any breakfast yet, but…”
Something was wrong. Wombat usually jumped up to the loose box door to greet her, but this morning the pup was suspiciously quiet. Issie walked up to the stall and stuck her head over the door, fearing the worst. And she was right. Wombat wasn’t in the stall. It was empty. The dog was gone.
Issie was still hoping that there was an explanation for Wombat’s disappearance. Maybe Stella or one of the other girls had moved the pup? But when they arrived down at the stables, they were all just as shocked at his disappearance.
“I came down to give him dinner last night,” Morgan said. “I’m sure I bolted the bottom half of the door shut when I left.”
“You’re positive?” Kate asked.
“Totally!” Morgan said. “Besides, I can’t have left it open, or it would have still been open when Issie came down here this morning…”
“…which it wasn’t,” Issie agreed.
She looked closely at the inside of the stable door. It was covered in scratch marks from the blue heeler’s claws—he always jumped up against the door when the girls were coming to see him. Issie noticed that the scratches went all the way to the very top of the door.
“Uh-oh what?” Stella said.
“I think Wombat could have jumped out,” Issie said. “Look at the scratches on the door where he’s been leaping up. They go all the way to the top. He’s been getting stronger and bigger in the past few days. I think he finally managed to get over by himself.”
“I fed him dinner at seven—he could have escaped any time after that,” Morgan said.
Issie looked upset. “If he got out last night then Digger Murphy might be right…”
“And if Wombat tries to get to those sheep again…” Kate paused. “Digger’s going to shoot him.”
Issie was worried sick about the disappearance of Wombat. Even though it looked like the dog really was a sheep-killer, she still couldn’t believe that he had to be shot. Wombat was just a pup. Even if it was true, perhaps they could rehabilitate him? They had to get the pup back before Digger Murphy found him. But right now searching for Wombat was impossible. Issie was already running late for Tara Kelly’s next cross-country lesson. She needed to get Victory tacked up. They were due on the course at half-past nine, and since Tara Kelly already seemed to dislike her, Issie didn’t want to push her luck by keeping her waiting.
There was no time for doing immaculate bandages today. Instead, Issie quickly fastened some Velcro tendon boots on to Victory’s front legs. As for breakfast, she grabbed two carrots out of the feed bins—one for her and one for Victory—before tightening the girth on her saddle, checking the straps on her back protector and mounting up.
The other riders were all gathered at the first fence on the course when Issie arrived, and Tara was already explaining the lesson for the day.
“Today we’re going to be facing the horses with the kind of cross-country questions you can expect to find in the competition,” Tara explained. “Yesterday, when we walked the course, I briefed you on the best way to approach each jump and then you did it my way. Today we’re going to look at some new fences, but this time I’d like you to start thinking for yourselves.”
The sixteen riders all looked nervous. The first fence that Tara had parked them beside was not one of the fences that they had looked at when they walked the course yesterday. It was formidable, an enormous trakehner, constructed from a very solid pine tree trunk, positioned about a metre off the ground over the middle of an open ditch that must have been easily two metres wide. It looked terrifying.
“I see from the looks on your faces that you think this fence is one of the big questions on this course,” Tara said. She pointed to the next fence, which was a much smaller jump, a low hedge not much more than half a metre high, positioned at the top of a bank beneath the bough of a wide-spreading tree.
“I’d like a show of hands, please,” Tara said. “Who would rather ride this trakehner than the hedge jump?” No one raised their hand.
“Come on!” Tara said briskly. “Hands up who thinks the trakehner is easier to jump than the hedge.”
Tara looked at the sixteen riders in front of her. Fifteen of them sat perfectly still. Only one rider put her hand up.
Issie’s hand was trembling, but she kept it raised over her head.
“OK, Isadora,” Tara said. “Tell me why a trakehner that is twice the size of the other jump might be the easier option.”
Issie took a deep breath. “The trakehner is just a log jump really. The horses are all well-schooled to deal with ditches. If you keep your eyeline high then the horse won’t even look at the ditch and will jump wide anyway. Two metres sounds like a lot, but it’s not.”
“You’re right so far,” Tara said. “Now explain to me why the hedge is the harder fence.”
“Because…” Issie hesitated, “…because it’s at the top of a hill and horses don’t like to jump downhill. They can refuse sometimes at the last minute when they realise they can’t see the ground as it falls away. Also the branches of that tree are casting shade over the jump.”
“Horses have trouble adjusting to changes of light. If you ride them into the shade then sometimes their
eyes take a while to focus and they can spook…”
“Anything else?” Tara said stiffly.
“Ummm, the bough of the tree is hanging low over the hedge, creating a sort of ceiling above the fence. Horses get nervous if they have to jump with something above their heads—they worry they will hurt themselves—and that can make them spook too.”
Tara nodded. “Anything more you want to add?”
Issie shook her head.
“I would also have said that the hedge has no log at the base and therefore has no groundline,” Tara said. “A groundline helps the horse to know when to t
Issie was about to answer when Tara stopped her. “Actually, don’t tell me,” she said. “Go ahead and show me.”
“Ride the two jumps for me. You show me how you think they should be ridden.”
Tara turned to the rest of the riders. “Can you all stand out of the way by the marker flag to the left?” she asked. “We’re going to watch Isadora take Victory over the trakehner and then over the hedge under the trees and show us how she thinks it should be done.”
“Off you go,” Tara said, sliding her sunglasses down to shield her eyes. “You’re welcome to take a warm-up and pop him over that small post and rails if you like, before you take the trakehner.”
As Issie turned Victory away from the other riders, she was thinking about everything that Tara had told her yesterday. She believed she had figured out the best way to approach these two jumps and she hoped she was right. She looked at the trakehner and the huge ditch that lay beneath the log. If she took that fence wrong then she really would be in trouble.
Easing Victory into a canter, Issie did a figure of eight and popped him neatly over the little post and rails. Then she tightened her grip on the reins and stood up in her stirrups. As she turned from the post and rails, she made a long loop back towards the trakehner and urged Victory into a gallop.
“Is she going to slow down?” Kate asked nervously as Issie got closer to the giant log. Stella watched her, eyes widening. “Ummm…I don’t think so!”
Victory was galloping with Issie perched over his neck and they were showing no signs of slowing down. Issie’s eyes, filled with determination, looked up and over the huge log, never down at the ditch that lay beneath. She urged the horse on to take a big stride right before the fence and then gave him a last-minute tap with her heels, telling him to go.
Despite the imposing size of the ditch and the log, Victory flew over as if they weren’t even there. He never broke stride and he hit the ground galloping at the same pace.
Issie was buzzing with the thrill of the jump, but she still kept her head in the game, turning immediately to focus on their next fence, the low hedge. She turned Victory smartly to the right and, as she did so, she sat back firmly in the saddle and pulled the horse back so that he slowed down to a canter. They were a few strides out from the hedge when she checked her horse with the reins a second time, asking him to slow right down to a trot.
“What’s she doing?” Stella squeaked. “She’s trotting him!”
As Issie approached the hedge, she knew she was asking her horse to take quite a big jump from a slow pace. But she had her reasons. At a trot, Victory would have the chance to look at the hedge and realise that the ground dropped away on the other side. This way he wouldn’t spook at the sight of the bank, or fret about the change in light as he entered the shadows under the boughs of the tree. He had plenty of time to contemplate the jump in front of him, and when Issie put her legs on again, just in front of the jump, he simply trotted up to the hedge and took it as easily as if it were a cavaletti.
Issie had a grin a mile wide as she rode back to join Tara and the others. She couldn’t believe it! She had just aced the combination. Her position had been perfect and Victory had ridden like a dream.
Tara Kelly was watching her as she rode back. She had the same unreadable expression on her face that she always had, and when Issie reached the group, she didn’t say anything at all! In fact, she didn’t even bother to acknowledge Issie’s arrival. Instead, she addressed the other riders. “That is how I’d like all of you to ride this combination. I want a good strong gallop at the trakehner, then pull back and take the hedge at a trot so your horse has plenty of time to take a good look. OK? Who’s next? Laura—how about you?”
As Laura set off, Tara finally turned back to Issie. “You’re done. You can take a break if you like until the next fence,” was all she said.
“I’m not expecting to be teacher’s pet, but it’s just that she’s never said anything positive to me at all,” Issie complained as the girls untacked their horses after the ride.
“Tara was extra harsh on that cross-country course today,” Charlotte agreed. “She had me totally freaked at that corner jump when she made us ride it with one hand.”
“She’s tough on all of us, Issie, not just you,” Stella insisted. “I can barely move my arms after holding Woody back over that water combination she kept making us jump.”
Issie sighed. Stella was right. No one seemed to escape Tara’s attention—but her most critical comments were always directed at Issie. Plus, whenever they had come to a particularly dangerous or difficult fence, Tara always chose Issie to be the first to go over it. It was like she took some strange pleasure in making Issie take all the risks and make all the big decisions.
Issie was about to point this out and launch into further complaints when Charlotte muttered under her breath. “She Who Must Not Be Named! Coming this way!”
Tara was heading towards them and she had a look of deep concern on her face. Walking alongside her were Tom Avery and Digger Murphy.
“Isadora, Morgan, Stella, Kate and Charlotte,” Tara introduced the girls. “This is Digger Murphy. He’s been telling me that he saw a dog like the one that’s been attacking his sheep, a blue heeler pup, heading towards our stables. Have you seen anything?”
The girls all mutely shook their heads.
“I saw him head over there, behind the arena,” Digger added.
“We’ll help you look,” Avery said. He turned to the girls.
“Tara and I will ask the other riders to help as well. Can you girls start looking down here around the stables and up at the house?”
“OK,” said Issie. She didn’t know what else to say. She had heard what Avery had told Digger about dogs that kill sheep. How could they possibly explain that they were the ones who had been harbouring the fugitive?
The girls all looked at each other in horror as Tara, Avery and Digger departed.
“What if they find him?” Charlotte said.
“Don’t think about that,” said Issie. “We have to find him first and hide him.”
“But we can’t keep doing this forever,” Charlotte pointed out. “We’re not going to be here to look after him for much longer. What’s going to happen to Wombat when we go? He can’t stay here without us. Digger will shoot him—or he’ll starve.”
“Let’s worry about finding him first,” Kate said, always the practical one. “Morgan and Issie—you take the stables. Stella, Charlotte and I will search outside.”
They spent the next hour hunting everywhere they could think of looking. Issie and Morgan checked all the stalls, the feed room and tack room, and even climbed up to check the hay storage. The others walked through the paddocks, whistling and calling.
By 6 p.m. there was still no sign of Wombat. Issie was miserable, starving and freezing to death. It would be dark soon, but she knew they had to keep looking. Digger was still prowling around, and if they didn’t find Wombat, then he would. She decided to grab a sweatshirt from her bedroom and then try looking again down by the back of the stables where Digger said he had last seen the pup.
When she reached her room, however, the door wouldn’t open. She tried the knob again, twisting it harder and jiggling it. Nothing. The door wouldn’t budge.
Ohmygod! Typical! Dee Dee, her stupid room-mate, had locked her out! Issie hammered on the door, but no one answered.
“Dee Dee? Dee Dee!” Still no reply.
“Dee Dee! Open up!”
The door opened a slender crack and Dee Dee’s beady eyes appeared in the gap.
“Issie,” she hissed. “Shhh! You can come in, but…”
“Of course I can come in!” Issie huffed. “It’s my bedroom too!”
“I know! I know!” Dee Dee said. “It’s jus
Dee Dee opened the gap in the door just a little more so that Issie could squeeze through. Issie barged in and Dee Dee slammed the door shut immediately behind her.
“Dee Dee! What is going on in…here…” Issie’s tongue-lashing trailed off when she saw what Dee Dee had been up to.
Wombat raced up to Issie, grinning his goofy puppy grin. His tail was wagging so hard it was spinning like a propeller.
“Wombat!” Issie fell on her knees next to the puppy and gave him the most enormous hug. Wombat began to lick her face.
Issie turned to Dee Dee. “Where did you find him? We’ve been looking everywhere!”
“He was under the shed by the driveway,” Dee Dee said. “I was walking back from the stables and I heard this weird whimpering noise. I went to take a look and all I could see was his nose sticking out. He’d got stuck under there. I had to drag him out by his front paws. I brought him straight back to our room and I’ve been waiting here for you to come back.”
She looked at Issie. “It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the thing you were hiding. That day when I saw you down at the stables and you wouldn’t let me look in the stall?”
Issie was about to answer when there was a loud knock at the door. Wombat instinctively responded with a throaty growl.
“Shhhh!” Issie said to him. “Wombat, no! Be quiet!”
There was another knock, louder still, and this time Issie could hear the voices of Tara and Digger on the other side of the door. Issie looked at Dee Dee with pleading eyes. Dee Dee looked straight back at her and then reached out a hand and opened the door.
“Hi!” she said brightly to Tara. She had opened the door, but only enough to stick her head out and not enough for Tara and Digger to see Issie and the puppy cowering behind the bed by the window.
“Hi, Dee Dee,” Tara said. “We’re just doing a room check in case the puppy has come into the house.”
Dee Dee looked back over her shoulder at Issie and Wombat. Then she turned back to Tara and smiled. “My room is pretty messy, but I’m sure I’d have noticed if there was a puppy in here!”
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