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Authors: Shelley Peterson

Mystery at Saddle Creek

BOOK: Mystery at Saddle Creek
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Copyright © 2010 Shelley Peterson
Illustrations © 2010 Marybeth Drake
First ePub edition © 2011 Dancing Cat Books,
an imprint of Cormorant Books Inc.

No part of this publication may be printed, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll free 1.800.893.5777.

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Peterson, Shelley, 1952-
Mystery at Saddle Creek/Shelley Peterson

ISBN 978-1-77086-077-3

I. Title.

PS8581.E8417M97 2010 jC813'.54 c2009-905176-1

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.

Dancing Cat Books
An imprint of Cormorant Books Inc.
215 SPADINA AVENUE, STUDIO 230, TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA M5T 2C7
www.dancingcatbooks.com • www.cormorantbooks.com

To every person whose life has been touched by mental illness:
those who suffer, and those who try to help

If you stand high on the cliffs behind Saddle Creek Farm, the shape of the river below forms the outline of a saddle. The water twists and winds its way through the rocky, dramatic landscape of the Niagara Escarpment in Caledon, connecting all who cross its well-worn path.

Wild animals—deer, raccoons, squirrels, porcupines, coyotes and fox—come to drink. Hawks and owls compete for field mice, and songbirds trill in the treetops. Beavers dam off sections to build their homes, and fish are plentiful in the cold, deep pools.

If you were to paddle a canoe down the creek from the Grange to King Road, you'd pass Owen Enterprises, the Piersons, the Malones, Hogscroft, Bradley Stables and, of course, Saddle Creek Farm. It is a tightly knit community—a place where people care deeply for one another, and for the land around them. It is also a community that is passionate about its horses.

And what horses! Those in the area are famed for their talent and strength: the legendary Dancer; Sundancer; Moonlight Sonata. All were foaled within walking distance of Saddle Creek, and all have carried themselves and their riders to victory—both in the ring, and beyond. Some wonder what secret the area holds, to bring forth such amazing creatures. Some say it's in the water.

PROLOGUE

Tanbark was very hungry. He hadn't eaten a thing all day. The walls of his stomach rubbed together, screaming for food. Worse, it had been raining steadily, and he was soaked and shivering. Darkness was rapidly descending. He needed a fire to warm himself, and to cook the rabbit he'd killed with his slingshot.

Tan pushed his matted, dull brown hair out of his eyes and leaned over a pile of wet twigs. His numb hands shook uncontrollably as he tried to ignite the cardboard match. He concentrated as hard as he could, willing his hands to be still and do as he bid. On the third try, the match bent in half. Tan grunted in frustration. He hurled the matchbook as far as he could and fell backward, spreadeagled on the ground.

Life wasn't fair.

After a couple of minutes he opened his dark, hollow eyes. He gazed up through a canopy of maple leaves into the swirling sky. Drops of rain bathed his face and filled his eyes to overflowing. He clenched his fists.

Nobody understood.

His friends had long since deserted him. They all believed he'd gone insane. They didn't say it, but he knew. They looked at him with stupid pity, and Tan couldn't stand it. They were the ones to pity! They wanted him to be the same guy he used to be, but why? That whole life, everything he'd done and thought before the change, was fake. Sports, jobs, school, clubs—all of it fake. Just like them and their lives—they were hamsters running thoughtlessly on their little wheels. But they couldn't see it.

People were fools.

Even his own mother was no better. She wanted him to get help. Help? What did help mean? Medication to make him normal. As if becoming a drooling zombie was normal. And being locked up in a mental hospital? Just until he was sorted out, she'd said. Right. Like he wanted to be imprisoned with crazy people. Tan felt a familiar panic rise in his chest. His heart pounded.

And anyway, help for what? He liked the way he was now. He was so much happier, so much better. And way smarter.

Tan jumped to his feet and spun, looking in all directions. He would never be found. Nobody would take him away and lock him up. He'd rather die. He searched for the book of matches and bent to his task with renewed vigour.

He'd show them.

Soon, very soon, they'd discover how much he could teach them. They'd recognize his brilliance. Then they'd all want to know him! People would line up around the block to hear his words. They'd pay any amount of money to sit at his feet and glean his wisdom. He was so close to finding what he needed to find. So close. He just needed a little more time to figure things out. And he needed his freedom for that.

Freedom was everything.

Tan smiled as the match caught fire. It was an omen; things were going to be all right. He shielded the tiny flicker carefully with his cupped hand and held it to the dry leaves under the twigs. He watched with satisfaction as the leaves curled, contorted, then burst into flame.

He sat on his haunches and sighed. Here, finally, among the rocks and trees of the Niagara Escarpment, he'd found a home. Here, he had the peace he needed. Here, he would discover the real purpose of his life.

Here, he could find out about the other half of his family.

1

 

BACK AT SADDLE CREEK

Tan ran as fast as he could through the dense underbrush, back toward the safety of his makeshift camp. Somebody had seen him! He stumbled on a root and fell to his knees, panting hard. He had to get away, get back to safety. There'd been so much blood! He scrambled to his feet and ran on. So much blood! He had to get the sight of it out of his mind.

TEN WHOLE DAYS!

Alberta Simms wiggled her toes and shivered with pleasure. She and her sister were staying at Saddle Creek Farm with their Aunt Hannah for ten whole days while their mother and Stuart were on their honeymoon. The girls had returned to the farm on Saturday night, after the wedding, and Alberta was already loving every minute of it.

Everybody called her Bird. Her long, dark hair was lightly brushed and needed a trim. She had tawny skin and sparkling, somewhat mischievous, deep brown eyes. Her graceful, slight limbs gave her a younger appearance than some other girls of fourteen, as did her ripped denim shorts and old white tee. But Bird didn't care. It was the perfect outfit for a day on the farm.

Ten. Whole. Days. Bird could think of nothing better in the world as she sat on the top step of the kitchen stoop, taking in every detail. Sunday's persistent drizzle had greened up the fields. On this perfect Monday, late in June, the sky was pure blue and songbirds chirped madly. Bird took a deep lungful of sweet air and stretched like a cat.

As she waited for her Aunt Hannah—they had to get groceries, then pick up Julia from a friend's house in Inglewood— her eyes absorbed the peaceful scene across the driveway. Two horses grazed in the front field, sleek and shiny in their summer coats. Charlemagne, Charlie for short, was jet black with a white blaze and four white socks. Sundancer was a tall, coppery chestnut.

The chestnut's head shot up.
What're you looking at?

You, you handsome son of a gun.

Can't blame you for that.

Sunny, you never change.

Bird smiled broadly at the horse's enormous ego. Last summer, against all odds, she and Sundancer had won the trophy at the Haverford Fair. It had been a total upset. Sunny's clean, careful jumping skills and quick turns had rendered the competition speechless. And out of luck.

Sundancer was a champion jumper; there was no question about that. More importantly, though, he was her best friend.

Bird picked absently at a scab on her calf as she waited; a mosquito bite gone bad. Aunt Hannah could take her time. She'd happily sit here all day long.

Life hadn't always been this good. Her mother, Eva, had gone from job to job and man to man, and Bird had never known her father. He was a rodeo star whom Eva had met at the Calgary Stampede, and he'd left town long before Bird was born. She had been named Alberta after the province.

Bird knew she'd been a difficult child. At first everything had seemed fine, but that all changed when Bird was six. That's when she'd stopped talking. The doctors called it Elective Mutism, but for Bird it just meant that she couldn't get the words out of her mouth.Soon enough, she'd stopped trying—at least with humans. Animals, on the other hand, were no problem. Bird had always had an exceptional ability to communicate with them.

Eva probably would've had trouble coping with a perfectly “normal” child, but there was no way she could handle a girl who refused to talk. In desperation, she'd sent Bird off to Saddle Creek Farm to live with her Aunt Hannah. It was a good decision for the entire family. Bird found what she needed to start speaking again. Eva found Stuart Gilmore, the local school principal, and fell in love.

Bird licked her finger and wiped the blood from her leg where she'd dislocated the scab. Rays of light shone through the leaves, glistening on Sundancer's sleek, coppery coat. She breathed in deeply and sighed with pleasure.

The screen door opened suddenly. Hannah appeared, followed by a young dog. Bird glanced up at her aunt—a tall, slim, middle-aged woman in jeans, a mint green blouse and flip-flops.

“What are you waiting for, Bird? Let's go!”

Bird jumped up. “Sorry to keep you waiting!” she shot back.

“I know, I know. But the phone rang again just as I was almost out the door.” Hannah walked briskly to the white Ford truck. “It was Paul. Vaccinations, worming, papers, entry forms for the show ... you know!”

Bird followed at a more leisurely pace. She opened the rear door of the truck and motioned to Lucky. “Get in, boy,” she said aloud, catching her aunt's pleased glance. Hannah still worried that Bird communicated too much with animals and too little with people, even though she'd been speaking aloud for a year.

Bird silently asked Lucky to bark.
Speak dog-talk, Lucky.

“Arf arf arf arf!” he obeyed cheerfully.

Good boy!
“He told me we're out of dog food,” Bird said.

“Remind me to smack you about the ears.” Hannah shook her head and chuckled as she stepped up behind the wheel and started the engine. “Have you got the list?”

Bird waved a yellow sheet of paper in the air and jumped in. As they started down the lane, the impatiens and bluebells in the farmhouse gardens caught Bird's eye through the truck window. Vibrant reds and purples and blues. Hannah sure loved colour.

Sundancer looked up as the truck moved past.
Where are you going?

To the store. Let's go for a ride when I get back.

Maybe. It's kinda hot and the grass is delicious.

We have to practice.

Practice, shmactice. I can do those baby jumps with my eyes closed.

But I can't.

You're such a perfectionist.

See you in an hour. Get your saddle on and wait by the mounting block.

Ha ha ha.

Bird laughed with him, ignoring Hannah's questioning look.

“I saw Cody this morning,” said Hannah. “Somehow he knows you're back at Saddle Creek.”

Bird smiled. The small coyote was very clever. Of course he'd known that she was back. He knew everything.

“I'm so glad you and Julia are around for a while,” continued Hannah as they drove down the hill, past the badlands and over the railway tracks. “Like the old days! But the time will go by fast. Your mother and Stuart will be back before we know it.”

Bird didn't want to think about it.

“Is there anything you especially want to do while you're here?”

Bird shook her head and grinned. “Just ride and ride and ride. And go to horse shows.”

Hannah smiled broadly. “A girl after my own heart. But you've got a lot of catching up to do if you want to take Sunny this Friday.” Bird nodded. “I'll start as soon as we're back from the store.”

She could hardly wait to get riding again. Since Bird's speech had come back last summer, she'd fit in at school for the first time in her life. Suddenly, there were friends to hang out with, sports to play, clubs to join —
and
a new boyfriend — as well as schoolwork. Her days had been full and she'd ridden only sporadically since last summer, a fact that she now regretted. There was so much to do!

“Are you and Alec still dating?”asked Hannah. “Tell me if it's none of my business.”

Bird blushed. It was all so new. “It's none of your business, but yes ... if he doesn't forget all about me over the summer.” She was joking, but she really wasn't happy that Alec would be away for three whole months. He had a job as a counsellor-in-training, or CIT, at Camp Kowabi, teaching kids how to canoe and make fires. Some of her other friends were CITs, too, but Bird hadn't applied. She'd wanted to stay close to home so she could go to horse shows with Sunny.

“How could Alec forget about you? You're an original.”

Bird grinned. Original was a nice way to put it. She thought about their last date, just a few days ago. She'd invited Alec to her mother's wedding. Bird was busy being a bridesmaid, but after the vows, they'd danced the night away. She hugged herself and tingled with the memory of their kisses under the trees.

Hannah turned off the road and parked the truck beside the Inglewood General Store. They got out, leaving the windows down for Lucky.

Get me a treat?

I'll see what they've got, Lucky, but you can't have a treat every time we stop somewhere.

But can I have one this time?

Bird patted his furry brown head and ran her finger down the white on his nose. She smiled. Lucky was indeed lucky to live with Aunt Hannah.

Inside the store, Hannah took the grocery list from Bird and began gathering items while Bird looked through the movie selection. She'd seen a lot of them, but some new releases had just come in, and a few looked intriguing.

Suddenly, the door burst open and a middle-aged woman rushed in. Her face was red with exertion and her bleached blonde hair was flattened with sweat. It was Ellen Wells, a neighbour.

“Call 911!” Ellen ordered. “A woman is lying on the road up at McLaughlin and The Grange. She's bleeding badly, and my cell went dead!”

Roxanne, the store's owner, calmly picked up the phone and dialed. “Who is it?” she asked as she waited.

“I don't know her name.” Ellen was beginning to catch her breath, but she was still flustered. The other customers stopped what they were doing and listened. “She lives in the new housing development in Inglewood. I've seen her around.”

People started murmuring, and Roxanne held up her hand for silence. She gave the information to the 911 operator clearly, listened quietly, then put the phone back in the cradle. “They're on their way. Here, Ellen, sit down and drink some water.” Roxanne took the excited woman by the arm and helped her into a chair. “Tell us what happened.”

Bird, Hannah and the others huddled around to hear.

“There's blood everywhere!” Ellen started shaking. “There's a huge gash on her head!”

Roxanne spoke soothingly. “Help is on the way, Ellen. Take your time. How did it happen?”

Ellen's face was so flushed that Bird wondered if she was going to have a heart attack. Or explode.

The woman started talking again, making a great effort to speak slowly, but her speech got quicker and quicker as she went on.“I was driving east. On The Grange.A car was pulled over on the side of the road. Up the hill in the woods I saw a young man running away. I wondered why he was running up there — no trails. And then, when I got closer to the car, I noticed it had a flat tire. And there was a ... a person covered with blood on the ground. I stopped my car and got out. I thought she was dead, but she was alive. She opened one eye and said, ‘Help!' On the ground beside her was a tire iron — covered in blood! I thought to myself, what if that man offered to help with the flat, then hit her on the head with the tire iron and ran away! I asked her if that was what happened, and she tried to say something but then she passed out and I drove here to call for help.”

A young woman Bird didn't know spoke next. “It sounds like that's exactly what happened, with the bloody tire iron and the man running away.”

“Why would anyone do such a thing?” Roxanne exclaimed. She rubbed Ellen's shoulder as her tongue clucked empathetically.

“What is the world coming to when you can't trust a man who offers to help change a tire?” asked an older woman who lived up the hill.

“Who was he?” questioned the older woman's sister. “The man who ran away?”

Ellen shrugged. “I have no idea. I'm sure I've never seen him before.”

“How old was he?”

“Young. And fit. With longish dark hair.”

The sound of sirens stopped the conversation dead. Roxanne hurried out onto the porch and waved at the first vehicle. It was an ambulance. The driver slowed and rolled down his window. “The Grange and McLaughlin!” she shouted. He nodded and sped off, followed by a fire truck and two police cruisers.

Ellen got up from her chair and headed for the door. Roxanne stopped her. “There's nothing more you can do, Ellen. She'll be looked after and taken to the hospital.”

Ellen shook her off. “I found her. I need to make sure she's all right. And I'm the only witness!” The small crowd watched as she slammed the door and disappeared into her car.

“Wow,” said Hannah.

“You can say that again,” exhaled Roxanne. “What a shock.”

Hannah nodded. “It's lucky Ellen was passing by right then, and stopped.”

“She's the kind of person who would stop,” said a young woman from down the road. “She brought me a casserole when George had his operation.”

“That's Ellen for you,” agreed Roxanne.

Hannah paid for her groceries in silence. Bird had lost all interest in renting a movie. They picked up their bags and started to leave. “Thanks, Roxanne,” said Hannah absently.

“Bye, honey,” answered Roxanne. “Bye, Bird.”

“I hope they catch him soon, before he strikes again,” muttered a young woman holding a toddler.

“And lock him up where he belongs,” agreed an older one. “I won't be able to sleep until then.”

Back in the truck, Hannah shuddered. “This is terrible.”

“Let's go pick up Julia,” Bird said. “I'll feel better when she's with us.”

Hannah nodded. “Me, too. But we have to drive right by the scene of the accident. I'm not looking forward to that.”

She could see that Hannah was upset, but Bird was more curious than anything. She wanted to see for herself what was going on.

She didn't have to wait long. Up ahead was a police barricade, set up around a small blue sedan. Bird watched while the medics rolled a loaded stretcher into the back of the ambulance. As soon as the doors were closed, the sirens began to wail. The vehicle raced off, lights flashing.

Hannah and Bird drove in silence until they reached the cozy white clapboard house where Julia had spent the night. As they pulled into the lane, Liz and Julia came running out, all flushed and excited.

“Aunt Hannah! Bird!” shouted Julia. “What's going on? We heard all the sirens, but we didn't want to bike down to see because you were coming.” Her blonde hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail and her pretty face was strained with worry. “What happened?”

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