A Winning Gift
? CHAPTER ? 1
“HOLD STILL, CLOUDY.” MADDIE MARTINEZ tightened her grip on her pony’s hoof as Cloudy tried to pull it away. “I have to finish picking out your feet, and then I have a surprise.”
“What kind of surprise?” her friend Vic asked.
Vic and her twin sister, Val, were fussing over a chubby bay pony in the next set of crossties. All three girls had just finished their group riding lesson at Solano Stables. Maddie and Vic were still working on their mounts’ post-ride grooming, though Val had thoroughly brushed her lesson pony, picked out all four hooves, and returned him to his stall at least ten minutes earlier.
But that was Val for you, Maddie thought fondly. She and Vic might be identical twins, with the same wavy reddish-brown hair and wide hazel eyes, but in every other way they were as different as night and day. Val was one of the most efficient and organized people Maddie knew. And Vic, well, wasn’t.
“What kind of surprise?” Vic said again, sounding a little impatient.
“Chill. You’ll see in a sec,” Maddie told her with a laugh. She quickly finished cleaning out Cloudy’s hoof, then dropped it and straightened up. “Are you almost finished with Chip? Because I’ll probably need your help with this.” She glanced at Val. “Both of you.”
“I’m done now.” Vic gave the bay pony one last swipe with her brush, then grabbed the lead rope she’d dropped on the ground by her grooming kit. “I’ll take him to his stall and be back in a flash!”
As Vic hurried off, dragging Chip behind her, Val wandered over and picked up one of Maddie’s brushes. She started going over Cloudy’s already-immaculate palomino pinto coat.
“She’s pretty clean,” she said. “Aren’t you going to take her back to her stall?”
“Nope. She has to be here for the surprise,” Maddie told her. “You’ll see.”
Val looked curious, but she didn’t ask any more questions. “So today’s lesson was fun,” she said instead.
“Every lesson is fun. Especially when I’m riding Cloudy.” Maddie gave the pony a pat on the shoulder, smiling as she thought back over that day’s ride. She and the twins had regular group lessons together twice a week. Usually they rode on Saturdays, but this week they’d switched to Sunday afternoon because the twins had gone to a family wedding the day before. That had actually made things a little easier for Maddie, since she hadn’t needed to rush over to the barn after her Saturday-morning soccer scrimmage.
Val glanced at Maddie over Cloudy’s back. “Speaking of Cloudy, did Vic tell you her latest theory?”
“I don’t think so,” Maddie said, instantly curious. Vic was always full of theories and ideas. And since Val sounded mildly disapproving, that meant this one was probably fun or at least interesting. “What is it?”
“She thinks your parents are going to buy Cloudy for you for your birthday.” Val used her brush to flick a speck of dust from Cloudy’s shoulder. “She thinks that’s why they were so quick to agree to let you have your party here next weekend.”
Maddie laughed. “So Vic thinks Mom and Dad are going to tie a big bow on Cloudy and give her to me? I wish! Sadly, I’m afraid Vic is delusional.” She gave the pony another pat. “My parents made it pretty clear they weren’t interested in pony ownership when I tried to raise money to buy Cloudy over the summer. Remember?”
“Of course I remember that.” Val rolled her eyes. “Vic? Not so much.”
“Not so much what?” Vic hurried up to them, out of breath and clutching her lead rope. “Never mind. I don’t care. I want to hear about Maddie’s surprise.”
Maddie glanced at her. “So you think my parents are buying Cloudy, huh?” she said. “Sorry, not happening. I tried that a few months ago, remember?”
Thinking back to those days made her smile now, though it had been pretty stressful at the time. And no wonder. For a while Maddie had been sure she was going to lose Cloudy.
And that wasn’t acceptable. Maddie had adored the spunky Chincoteague pony mare ever since the day Ms. Emerson, the owner of Solano Stables, had bought her. Cloudy had arrived half trained and pretty wild. Her previous owners had bought her as a weanling and had shipped her all the way from the East Coast, mostly because she looked almost identical to the pony made famous in Marguerite Henry’s classic book, Misty of Chincoteague. They’d tried to train her but hadn’t done a very good job, and by the time she was eight years old, Cloudy was way too much for them to handle.
But Ms. Emerson had seen something special in the sweet-natured pony, and so had Maddie. She’d read Misty of Chincoteague dozens of times and could hardly believe that a real live Chincoteague pony was right there at her barn in Northern California, an entire continent away from the tiny island where she’d been foaled.
She’d watched, fascinated, as the experienced barn owner had started Cloudy’s retraining, first teaching the mare ground manners—how to walk quietly at the end of a lead rope and to pick up her feet to be cleaned or trimmed by the farrier. After that Ms. Emerson had moved on to restarting Cloudy under saddle. Those earliest rides had been pretty exciting, at least in Maddie’s opinion, since all Cloudy knew how to do was take off at a high-headed gallop as soon as someone mounted. But Ms. Emerson had stayed patient, showing the pony that it was okay to walk and trot with a rider on her.
It wasn’t long before Maddie started asking to ride Cloudy. At first the answer was a firm no—Maddie had been taking lessons for only a matter of months at that point, and Ms. Emerson just kept repeating her favorite saying: “Green plus green equals black-and-blue.” Maddie was still green—new to riding—and so was Cloudy.
But a few weeks later, Cloudy was cantering quietly and popping over tiny jumps. Even Ms. Emerson had to admit that the mare was learning fast. Maddie might not have been the most experienced lesson rider at that point, but she was one of the boldest—and definitely the most persistent. So the barn owner had finally allowed her to try Cloudy in a lesson. They were only allowed to walk and trot in the beginning, and the first couple of rides had been pretty challenging for Maddie, since Cloudy was a lot more sensitive than the placid lesson ponies she’d been riding up to that point. Even so, she’d known as soon as she climbed into the saddle that she and Cloudy just clicked.
A year and a half later, Cloudy was one of the stable’s steadiest, most reliable lesson horses—safe for any beginner, but with enough spunk left to keep things interesting when more experienced riders climbed into the saddle. Sometimes Maddie fantasized about having Cloudy all to herself—never having to share her with other lesson riders, knowing she’d always be there waiting for Maddie when she came to the barn. But that was all it had ever been. A fantasy.
Then the previous owners had turned up over the summer, wanting to buy Cloudy back. Maddie had freaked out and tried everything she could think of to stop them, including raising money to buy the mare herself—at least until she’d realized Ms. Emerson had no intention of selling Cloudy.
Maddie snapped out of her reminiscing when Vic poked her hard on the shoulder. “A few months ago it wasn’t your birthday,” Vic said. “Now it is.”
“True.” Maddie shivered with excitement. She was turning twelve in exactly one week. Her parents and Ms. Emerson had agreed to let her throw a party at the stable, and Maddie had invited more than two dozen of her closest friends. “I guess we’ll have to see. But I’m not holding my breath.”
“Really?” Vic sounded a little disappointed.
“Yeah.” Maddie smiled at her. “It’s okay, though. I’m happy with the way things are. Cloudy almost feels like mine, you know?”
“I can’t wait for your party, Maddie.” Val tossed her brush back in Maddie’s grooming bucket. “It’s going to be fun.”
“Totally,” Vic agreed. “But we can talk about that later. Surprise?”
“Oh, right.” Maddie stepped over to her backpack, which she’d dropped in a corner of the grooming area. Digging inside, she pulled out a small bottle. “Check it out.”
Val peered at the bottle, which sparkled in the barn’s overhead lights. “Nail polish?” she said, sounding mystified. “Um . . .”
“Since when are you a nail polish kind of girl, Mads?” Vic grabbed the bottle from Maddie. “Especially Pink Twinkle nail polish?”
Maddie glanced at her own hands. Her fingernails weren’t exactly manicure ready. Between riding Cloudy, playing soccer, riding her bike, and everything else she liked to do, it was way too much trouble to do more than clip off the ragged ends now and then.
“I’m not a Pink Twinkle kind of girl,” Maddie told the twins. “But Cloudy? She totally could be.”
“Huh?” Val still looked confused. But Vic raised an eyebrow.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” she asked with a grin.
Maddie grinned back. “Just try to keep her still, okay?”
Squatting down beside Cloudy’s front hooves, she uncapped the nail polish. Cloudy pricked her ears and looked down as the sharp smell drifted through the grooming area.
“Hold still, girl,” Vic said, putting a hand on one of the crossties to steady the pony.
Maddie carefully swiped the nail polish onto Cloudy’s left front hoof, leaving a sparkly pink stripe. Val watched, still looking a bit perplexed.
“Well, now I know why you spent so much time cleaning her hooves off today after lessons,” she said.
“Yeah.” Vic grinned. “It looks awesome! Where’d you get the polish?”
“Tillie’s dresser.” Maddie added another swipe. “She’s got like a zillion bottles of makeup-type goop sitting there. She probably won’t even notice this one’s gone.”
Val watched as Maddie edged the nail polish wand down toward the bottom of the hoof. “Don’t get any hay or dirt in it.”
“Hay and dirt just add texture,” Vic told her sister with a laugh. “Hey, Mads, I hope it lasts until your party!”
“If it doesn’t, we’ll just have to have another manicure session before then.” Maddie sat back on her heels and surveyed the pink-glitter-covered hoof. “Gorge!”
“Totally,” Vic agreed.
Even Val smiled. “Actually, it does look pretty cool.”
“Cool doesn’t cover it. You look fabulous, Cloudy!” Maddie drawled, doing her best to imitate the fashion commentators she’d seen on TV. “Pink is so definitely your color, darling.”
“Definitely!” Vic and Val chorused.
Suddenly Cloudy pricked her ears, turning her head to look down the barn aisle. A second later Maddie heard the squeak of the wheelbarrow and saw the stable’s newest part-time stall cleaner coming their way. He was tall and lanky, with floppy dark brown hair and a slightly crooked smile. Maddie had talked to him only a few times, enough to discover that his name was Seth, he was a freshman at the local high school, and he was working at the barn to earn some quick spending money even though he didn’t know much about horses. Still, he seemed nice enough, and more important, he was intrigued by the fact that Cloudy was a Chincoteague pony—a rare breed anywhere, but especially in Northern California.
“What are you guys laughing about over here?” he asked with a friendly smile. “It’s scaring the horses.”
Vic stuck out her tongue at him. “Very funny!”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Maddie said. “We’re just giving Cloudy a manicure.”
Seth glanced down at the pony’s hooves, and his eyes widened. “Oh, man!” he said, snorting with laughter. “Does Ms. Emerson know you’re doing that?”
“Good question.” Val looked concerned. “I didn’t think of that.”
Maddie shrugged. “She let those little kids paint Wizard’s hooves with that glitter stuff from the tack shop for the last show, remember? This is the same thing. Pretty much.”
“That’s our Maddie,” Vic said. “Why ask permission when you can ask forgiveness instead?”
Seth laughed. “Good one.” He stepped over and gave Cloudy a rub on the neck. “Hope you like pink glitter, Cloudy.”
“Make sure you clean her stall extra well, okay?” Maddie told him. “She doesn’t want to mess up her manicure.”
“You got it.” He grinned. “Speaking of which, I’d better get back to work. Later, guys.”
“See you.” As he walked off, Maddie returned her attention to Cloudy, scooting around to attack her other front hoof. “How about that, Cloudy? You’re already turning guys’ heads with your new look.”
Vic glanced after Seth to make sure he was out of earshot. “And a cute guy, too.”
Maddie shot her a smirk. “Uh-oh. Don’t tell me you’re going boy crazy on us!”
“You don’t have to be boy crazy to notice that guy,” Vic protested. “I mean, I have eyes, okay?”
“Whatever.” Maddie feigned concern as she gazed at Vic. “All I know is that my friend Haley has these friends who got infected with the boy bug, and now they’re totally impossible.”
The twins exchanged a look. “Haley?” Val said. “She’s one of your Pony Whatsit friends, right?”
“Pony Post, yeah.” The Pony Post was a private website with just four members. Maddie had met the other three girls online and had bonded with them over their shared love of Chincoteague ponies. Haley Duncan lived in Wisconsin, where she competed a pony named Wings in the challenging sport of eventing. Nina Peralt owned a pony named Bay Breeze and kept him at a barn in New Orleans. Brooke Rhodes lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, just a few miles north of Chincoteague and Assateague islands. She kept her pony, Foxy, in her rural backyard.
Even though they lived so far apart, the four girls had become fast friends since starting the website together. Maddie usually checked in with them at least once a day, sharing everything about her time at the barn with Cloudy—and the rest of her life, too.
That reminded her—she wanted to take some pictures of Cloudy’s new look to share with the other Pony Posters. She quickly finished painting Cloudy’s right front hoof, then fished her phone out of her bag.
“Oops,” she said. “Forgot to turn this back on after our lesson.”
When she clicked the power button, two new texts appeared. The first was from her older sister, Tillie:
Hey, do u have any idea what happened to my new nail polish? B/c it was VERY VERY $$$, and if u had something to do with it disappearing, u will be sorry!
“Uh-oh,” Maddie muttered.
“What?” Vic peered at the phone over Maddie’s shoulder. “Yikes! Think she’s talking about the Pink Twinkle?”
“Maybe,” Maddie said. “Um, probably. Okay, definitely.” She glanced at the nearly empty bottle of nail polish and winced. Tillie didn’t have much of a sense of humor, and Maddie knew she probably wouldn’t be at all amused by what had happened to her Pink Twinkle. “I suppose that’s why this one was way at the back of her makeup junk,” Maddie mused aloud. “She probably didn’t want Mom and Dad to notice it and guess how much she spent on it, since they keep bugging her about putting more money in her savings account for college. But whatever—I’ll deal with her later.”
She clicked over to the other new text. It was from her friend Bridget:
Maddie!! Text me back as soon as you can. I need you!!!! My life is pretty much over, and I don’t know what to do!!!!!!!! Srsly, text me back, OK????!!!??
“Uh-oh,” Maddie said again. Bridget tended to be pretty dramatic, but this was extreme even for her. Maddie quickly tapped the response bar to text her back. “Better find out what this is about . . .”