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The Saddle Creek Series 5-Book Bundle

The Saddle Creek Series 5-Book Bundle

Christmas at Saddle Creek / Dark Days at Saddle Creek / and 3 more
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Christmas at Saddle Creek


’Twas the night before Christmas …

Alberta Simms awoke with a start. Her eyes flew open to a wall of blackness. The cozy bedroom overlooking the front field at Saddle Creek Farm was totally dark, and apart from the steady pinging of freezing rain on the windowpanes, totally silent.
Her cellphone read 11:33 p.m.
What woke me up this time of night? she wondered. She slipped out from under her warm covers, and her bare feet felt the cold of the old pine as they touched the floor. She padded the two small steps to the window, pulled open the curtains, and peered outside into the darkness.
Alberta Simms was known by her nickname, “Bird.” At sixteen, she was still slight and sinewy, but rapidly changing from girl to woman. Her skin was the colour of caffe latte, her eyes were a deep chocolate brown, and she wore her shiny dark hair long and loose. Bird was proud to be First Nations, and she looked far more like her First Nations father than her blond, blue-eyed mother of British heritage.
Her eyes began to adjust to the murkiness outside, and with effort she could make out the line of split-rail fencing that followed the laneway. Through the hail and fog she could see the three big maples on the lawn. One stood right in front of the house beside her window, and the others were on either side of the front walk. They looked blurry, but their forms were recognizable.
She could identify nothing that might have awoken her from her sleep.
Tonight was Christmas Eve. Tomorrow was Christmas. So far, her sixteenth Christmas was shaping up to be just like the fifteen that came before — full of disappointment and stress.
Her mother, Eva, was throwing hissy fits and bickering with her latest husband, Stuart. Bird and her little sister Julia joked that “Eva stole Christmas.” But it was true. How much fun is it when somebody in the family is miserable and brings everybody’s spirits down? No fun at all.
Bird groaned as she replayed this week’s scene. Eva, with her face red and streaked with mascara, clothes strewn all over her bed and floor, whined that she didn’t have anything to wear to Stuart’s annual Christmas party. In Bird’s opinion, Eva was right. Nothing in those rumpled piles suited her. She should throw out all the ribbons and bows and flouncy short skirts. It was embarrassing. Add overbleached, overcurled, long blond hair, plus too much makeup, and Eva looked like a cheap, wrinkly teenager trying out for the 1980 high school cheerleading team.
But she shouldn’t have said it out loud.
Here was yet another example of how living with elective mutism can be an advantage. It was a horrible, frustrating affliction, and it had caused her untold misery, but when Bird was not able to speak, she never had to watch what she said.
Bird had been misdiagnosed with autism when she stopped speaking at age six. She was not typical in most ways, with her unusual ability to communicate non-verbally with animals, so it must have been difficult for the doctors, she conceded. But they got it right when they landed on a diagnosis of elective mutism. Her vocal cords worked just fine, but she couldn’t get the words out of her mouth.
Now the words could come out, and her mother had not taken kindly to being called a 1980 vintage, wrinkly teenager. She “thought it best” that Bird stay with Aunt Hannah over Christmas. So Bird had been dumped unceremoniously at Saddle Creek, while thirteen-year-old Julia stayed with Eva. And now, instead of coming to Aunt Hannah’s for Christmas, they were going to Stuart’s parents’ cottage in Muskoka for a big family gathering. Bird pictured an ornate tree, succulent turkey, lavish gifts, and joyful people hugging each other and laughing. But not with me, Bird thought. She sniffed back the aching feeling of hurt.
It wasn’t news that Eva loved Julia more than she loved Bird. Julia was far more lovable, Bird admitted, and a blue-eyed blonde like Eva, of which their mother made a big deal. Bird didn’t miss all the fuss and anxiety that accompanied Eva, but she wished that she could at least spend Christmas with her half-sister.
Bird curled her feet and stood on their outer edges to avoid the coldness of the floor. She was shivering but stayed for another minute at the window, just in case she’d missed something that might explain her disrupted sleep.
She had actually been looking forward to the Christmas celebration this year, but what had started out to be a decent-size dinner at Saddle Creek Farm had dwindled down to four people: Aunt Hannah, her veterinarian fiancé, Paul Daniels, Bird, and her grandmother, Jean Bradley. Not exactly a barrel of monkeys. Now it would be a very small gathering, with a very small turkey.
The real blow was Alec, who was now spending Christmas with his mother, which Bird understood completely. But having Alec there for dinner would’ve made everything great, even if nobody else came. She sighed deeply.
During those times when Bird couldn’t talk and acted out in abnormal ways, Alec had been there for her. Everybody in the entire world thought she was a weirdo misfit, but Alec had always stood up for her. Bird smiled as she remembered how he used to translate for her when she couldn’t speak, and how he’d faced down bullies at school when they were cruel.
They’d had a crush on each other for the last few years.
But now, things had changed. His father and her Aunt Hannah were engaged, and Bird wondered if their relationship might be too awkward. She wasn’t sure how it would work at family get-togethers, like Christmas, which were always difficult, anyway. Alec refused to think there was a problem, but Bird had told him that they should talk about it, and until it was resolved one way or the other, at least they could remain friends.
Friends can’t kiss each other, she thought. That might be difficult for her. Wow. Talk about confused emotions. Anyway, he wasn’t coming for Christmas dinner so it wouldn’t come up, but she was disappointed. Very.
She willed herself to focus on happy things. She loved being here at Saddle Creek with Aunt Hannah, Paul Daniels, and their funny brown dog, Lucky. She loved her cheerful little room in the farmhouse, with red, blue, green, and white tartan curtains and matching bedspread, and lively red sheets. She loved her interactions with Cody, the enigmatic coyote who appeared on a whim, or whenever he was needed, and disappeared again just as mysteriously. He’d been around for as long as she could remember.
More than anything else, she loved being with Sundancer, an undisputed jumping champion and her best friend. He was an athletic chestnut gelding who jumped anything that Bird faced him with and in stellar style. They’d had many adventures together, and they usually came home from competitions with trophies and ribbons galore.
There was never enough time to be around horses, she thought. Sunny gobbled up all her attention and still wanted more. Since arriving, Bird had done nothing much other than ride him, clean tack, and help muck out stalls, which was just how she liked it. If she could choose any place on Earth to be at any given moment, it would be right where she was now.

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Chapter 1: The New Horse

It is time to tell my story.
I am big and I am beautiful. When I run, I run like the wind, and when I jump, I jump like a deer. I am a winner.

Alone in the paddock, the sleek chestnut gelding grazed. He methodically trimmed the blades of grass close to the ground, left to right, right to left, as far as his neck could reach. He took a step and began again. Row after row. Step after step.
A woman and a girl leaned on the fence and observed him closely, an old yellow dog at their feet. A quiet breeze ruffled their hair and gently rippled their clothing. The woman, fortyish, lean and sinewy, smoothed her fair hair from her face and muttered, “What the deuce are we going to do with him, Bird?”
The girl said nothing. The hot August air blew her unkempt hair into her eyes, and she made no effort to remove it. Her arms were skinny and brown with the sun.
He’ll be my horse, she thought. No one else’s.
Tell me your story, handsome. She aimed the thought in the horse’s direction. No response.
The horse had been delivered earlier, while Bird and Hannah were out checking the fences. Bird wished she’d been there to see his arrival. Their vet, Paul Daniels, had practically begged Hannah to take him in. A favour, he’d said. An underdog in need. Bird could relate.
Lazily, the horse took another step and began a new line of grass. He casually swished his tail to rid himself of flies.
Bird studied the horse closely. He was extraordinarily handsome. Sixteen hands, two inches tall, she guessed. His legs were long, fine, strong, and straight, correct in every way. His neck was elegant, with a graceful curve along the top line of his body, connecting his delicate ears to his generous withers and across the gentle slope of his back to his perfectly rounded haunches. Every movement he made was graceful, and his coat gleamed a fiery copper.
And yet, something about this horse was not quite right. Underneath his calm exterior, as he mechanically grazed and pointedly ignored them, was a nervousness, a jumpiness, that Bird found disquieting. He didn’t trust them. He didn’t trust anyone.
“Poetry, eh, Bird?” said Hannah. “He’s like poetry in motion.”
Hannah sighed and turned back to the house. “Don’t be too long, hon. Supper’s almost ready.” She stopped for a moment, waiting for a reaction. There was none. Alberta, nicknamed Bird, continued to stare at the animal.
“Don’t get any ideas, young lady. Nobody can handle this horse. That’s why he ended up here. Saddle Creek: farm of last resort. I’ll add that to our sign, if I ever get around to fixing it.”
Hannah Bradley shot one last glance at the new horse and headed for the house. She left the girl, the dog, and the horse alone.
Now, finally, the gelding raised his eyes to meet the girl’s. They assessed each other, neither one making a move.
Talk to me, beautiful horse. Tell me your story. Bird willed the big horse to respond. I know you can hear me.
The horse simply stared.
Why are you so suspicious? You have nothing to fear with me.
The horse didn’t so much as blink. He dropped his head back to the grass and continued grazing. Bird crouched down on her heels and began to rock gently. Although she was growing fast, Bird was still small for her thirteen years. She used that to her advantage now, as she manoeuvred her body under the lowest rail of the fence. She inched her bottom over to the post and quietly leaned her back against it.
In spite of spindly legs and oversized ears, Bird was pretty in her own unique way. Deep sable eyes graced her elfin face. Often they were dull and expressionless, but at other times they were lit by flashes of intelligence and sensitivity. Right now, they were almost entirely covered by her dark brown bangs that were badly in need of a trim. Impatiently she pushed the hair off her face and continued to stare at the horse.
Now that Hannah had gone, it seemed quiet in the paddock. The yellow dog dozed in the grass at her feet. The horse grazed in the field. Bird watched and enjoyed the silence. All at once, the horse stopped and looked directly at her, as if waiting for her to say something.
Don’t look at me, Bird thought with a smile. Alberta Simms hadn’t spoken a word for seven years, and she wasn’t about to start now.
Bird was Hannah’s niece, the daughter of Hannah’s younger sister, Eva. Eva had dropped Bird off at Saddle Creek — farm of last resort — two years earlier, on her way to another new life, with another new man. As far as Bird could tell, this was Eva’s way. Bird’s father was a cowboy from Calgary who left when Eva told him she was pregnant. He rode off into the sunset, never to return, Eva was fond of saying, and had never even phoned to find out if the baby was a boy or a girl.
From the time Bird could remember, Eva seemed to change jobs often, which meant picking up and moving to a new place. She was always hoping for something better, more interesting, less boring. Eva had changed boyfriends often, too, always hoping for someone better, more interesting, less boring. The one constant in Bird’s life, until the day she moved in with her Aunt Hannah, was change.
Now, sitting at the edge of this field with this beautiful horse, Bird could feel Hannah watching her from the kitchen window.
What was she worrying about now? The traces of a fond smile formed at the corner of Bird’s mouth. She’s worrying that I don’t talk. She’s worrying that I don’t fit in. She’s worrying that I’ll never be normal. Most of all, she’s worrying about school. And with good reason.
On the last day of classes, Stuart Gilmore, the principal of the Forks of the Credit school, had told Hannah that Bird could not come back. The school was simply not equipped to handle her. He’d given Hannah a list of alternative schools, and for the last few weeks Bird had watched as Hannah tried to find her a place. She’d had no luck with any of the public schools, and she couldn’t afford the fees at the private ones. Now it was August, and at the top of Hannah’s to-do list — posted conveniently on the refrigerator door — was to call Stuart Gilmore. Bird figured that Hannah planned to ask one more time.
Bird hated school. The kids were mean. But if she had to go back, the Forks of the Credit would be better than unknown alternatives.
Hannah called from the kitchen window. “Bird! Supper’s ready!”
Bird was hungry, but she disliked the confinement of sitting properly at the table, and she detested being constantly coached on her manners. Reluctantly, she scrambled back under the fence.
Come for dinner, Hector. Bird stroked the dog on her way past. He raised his head and thumped his tail.
Yummy. I’ve been hungry all day.
So what else is new? Bird smiled. What do you think of the new horse, Hector?
I don’t trust him. You shouldn’t either.
Bird nodded slowly and patted Hector’s head. He won’t talk to me yet, so I don’t know what to make of him. Bird hadn’t faced this before. Most animals responded to her immediately, delighted that a human could not only talk to them, but also understand what they had to say.
She slowly raised her hand and stretched it out toward the horse. The haughty chestnut lifted his head. Bird tried again to reach into his mind. Talk to me. Tell me about yourself.
The horse gave Bird a bored look, then turned his back, providing a perfect view of his welts and cuts. They would heal nicely with proper care, but so far the horse had not allowed anyone to get close to him, let alone treat his wounds. Earlier, when she’d first spotted him, Bird had taken the water hose out to the field. She’d stood on the fence and created a fountain that he had eventually walked into to cool off, so at least the wounds were washed out. She’d tried to squirt Wonder Dust, an antiseptic powder, into the nastier gashes but had only been somewhat successful. Tomorrow she’d try again.
Not for the first time, Bird wondered what had happened to this horse. How did he get those cuts, and why had he ended up at Saddle Creek? What did they do to you, beautiful fellow? Bird waited a moment for an answer then ran to the farmhouse without a backward glance.

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Abby Malone rode her elegant bay mare, Moonlight Sonata, to the top of the ridge. She looked down at Saddle Creek, and observed that the grey water, as it rushed over the rocks, mirrored the turbulence of the darkening skies.
At sixteen years of age, Abby was pretty and long-legged. Her silky blond hair was pulled into a low ponytail under her old black riding cap, and her cheeks were ruddy with health and energy. Her shape was fast becoming that of a woman, but her attitude remained unabashedly tomboyish.
Moonlight Sonata lowered her head to nibble the tender spring grass under the winter-coarsened weeds. Abby patted her sleek, dark neck and studied the wild beauty of the scene below. The wind was coming up. Treetops swayed and tall reeds waved. She inhaled deeply and savoured the smells of water, earth, and pine. The air around her tingled with edgy energy, signalling the onset of an electrical storm.
“There’s quite a storm coming, Moonie,” she said to her trusted companion.
Suddenly, a two-year-old filly raced up the rise at full speed.
“Whoa there, Leggy!” Abby yelled authoritatively. The filly stopped inches from the edge of the ridge, reared up, then stamped her front hoof impatiently.
“You little brat,” seethed Abby. “You scared me!”
Abby reached for the rope that dangled from the filly’s halter and grabbed it firmly. “That’s the last time I’m taking you with us, no matter how much of a fuss you make.” As an act of kindness, Abby had decided to bring the anxious Leggy along for the ride, but no sooner were they off the road, than she’d bolted in search of her own excitement. Now the scheming look in the young horse’s eyes made Abby glare back at her in exasperation.
Moonie had given birth to this beautiful creature two years earlier, and Abby had proudly named her Moon Dancer. The youngster was already taller than her mother and still growing rapidly. The exceptional length of her legs had given her the stable name of “Leggy,” and it had stuck. Her glossy chestnut coat was the exact shade of her father’s, and her spirit was rebellious. “You’re your father’s daughter, all right,” Abby observed aloud.
Leggy’s sire was Dancer, the local legend. He and his owner, Hilary “Mousie” James, had won countless jumping competitions. They’d been an unbeatable team until the cruel and savage attack five years earlier by Samuel Owens. Owens had quickly been judged legally insane and sent to the psychiatric facility at Penetang. That Dancer had survived at all was remarkable, but he had never competed again. He was now retired at Hogscroft, the James’ farm.
Abby sniffed the air; they were minutes away from a downpour. “Okay, ladies, gotta get back.” The light was fading fast. Trying to radiate calmness for the horses’ sakes, she gently pulled Moonie’s head up from the grass and turned her around. Leggy followed on the lead line but hopped around nervously, afraid of the changing weather. Just then, something dark and furry darted out from the trees.
“Hey, Cody!” A small grey coyote looked up at Abby adoringly, eyes shining. This girl was his best friend.
Abby returned his gaze. She’d found him when he was only a few days old and dying of starvation. She’d fed him a special mother’s milk substitution every few hours until he could eat on his own. Cody survived and grew into a small but healthy adult. Abby constantly marvelled at his intelligence and ingenuity. He was completely devoted to her; her shadow.


Abby, Moonie, Leggy, and Cody headed toward home. Old trees groaned and strained against the wind as the little group trotted down the path through the woods. Overhead, branches blocked what little remained of the light, leaving them to ride in near-darkness. As they came out of the woods into a hay field, a strong gust of wind hit them. Angry-looking clouds were rapidly closing in, and the sky was turning black.
The rain started suddenly. Stinging, cold, driving rain. The wind howled, and Leggy lurched away in fear. “Leggy, honey, don’t you worry, we’ll be home soon.”
A long serpent’s tongue of lightning shot from the heavens in front of them, followed by a deafening, horrifying crack. Abby counted five seconds between lightning and thunder, which meant that the lightning had struck approximately one mile away, very close to home.
They were now galloping across the Wick property. It had been for sale for over two years, and the place was neglected and overgrown. The house had long been empty and there were “No Trespassing” signs posted on trees. The barn was said to be haunted, and a shiver went down Abby’s spine at the sight of its dark looming shape.
Cody, nose down and tail flat, turned sharply and made a beeline toward the barn. Abby called after him, but the coyote didn’t look back.
A streak of electricity lit up the sky and thunder crashed simultaneously. Moonie reared in fright, and Leggy squealed a high-pitched alarm. The rain was coming down hard, pelting them mercilessly. Abby made a quick decision. She turned Moonie and Leggy toward the barn, following Cody’s lead.
The barn was a huge weather-beaten structure, about a hundred and fifty years old. The main floor was fieldstone, and faded grey barn boards housed the hayloft. Through the curtain of rain, Abby noticed a more solid shed, which stood on the other side of the farm lane. Dutch doors opened to a small paddock, and Abby thought that it must have once been shelter for horses. Since it was accessible and looked far safer than the barn, Abby headed for the shed.
Young trees were now bending with the force of the gale, and the rain came down in sheets. Abby’s face stung, and her hands were red and cold. Carefully, the group made its way through soggy, rotten debris and tangled vines. At the paddock gate Abby dismounted and threw the reins over Moonie’s neck. She led the two mares through the rusted gate and hurried to open the Dutch doors.
A hinge had come loose from one of the top doors, and it hung askew. Abby pulled it open and reached over the bottom door to feel for a latch. The horses were restless, eager for shelter. “Quiet, you two, I’m trying my hardest.” Abby found a hook and released it. She pushed. The door was stuck.
Cody, who’d been patiently waiting at her side, leapt over the bottom door into the shed and began digging.
Looking over, Abby saw that manure and old straw were blocking the door.
Abby went back and closed the paddock gate, then ran up Moonie’s stirrups and tucked her reins under a stirrup leather so she wouldn’t become tangled if she dropped her head to graze. She removed the dangling lead shank from Leggy’s halter and, satisfied that her horses were temporarily accident-proof, climbed over the half-door. “Don’t you move, ladies,” she ordered the nervous mares.
In the gloom she spotted an old pitchfork leaning against the far wall. It was rusty, but the handle was firmly attached and it had all its tines. She quickly went to work, aware that another bolt of lightning would set off Leggy. If she jumped the fence and made a run for it … Abby didn’t even want to speculate on the kinds of trouble the young mare could get herself into. She kept digging.
“Okay, girls, I think we’re in business,” Abby said to the mares, who had their heads over the door, watching her work. She pulled at the door, scraping it open enough for a horse to enter. Moonie, followed closely by Leggy, burst into the dry shed and away from the storm. Leggy immediately shook herself off and lay down for a roll. She scratched her back happily on the bedding, then stood and shook again, sending old straw and dust everywhere. Abby chuckled, delighted to have everyone safely under cover.
She untacked Moonie, propping her saddle against a post and hanging the bridle over a nail on the wall. She draped the saddle pad over an old barrel to let it dry. The leather would be a mess to clean, she thought, and her riding hat was soaked. In fact, all her clothes were soaked, and she was feeling the chill. She took off her riding hat and hung it on another nail. She shook the rain off her windbreaker and hung it over the handle of the upright pitchfork. Hopping up and down and rubbing her arms didn’t help much. “What I need is a blanket,” Abby said to Cody, as if he’d understand. He stared at her earnestly, intent on deciphering her meaning.
Moonie lay down on her side and rubbed her coat in the dusty straw. She rolled back and forth until all the water had been absorbed. She stood and shook, just like her daughter. “You’re so smart, using dirt as a towel,” said Abby, shivering. “Do you think it would work for me?”
The horses were settled nicely, and the next great flash of lightning didn’t bother them at all. They felt protected and safe, and were drying off quickly, but they didn’t have food or water. Abby hoped that they wouldn’t have to wait long for the storm to pass.
“In case we’re here for a while, it wouldn’t hurt to see what I can find.” There had to be a bucket in the barn, and if there wasn’t running water, a moment under the eaves would fill it up. Also, she was cold. Maybe there were empty burlap grain sacks stored somewhere or, better yet, horse blankets. They’d be musty and filthy for sure, but they’d help retain her body heat. Abby patted Moonie and Leggy on their noses and set off to the barn with Cody.
The light was dim as they ran into the rain and dashed for the barn door. Wind whistled through an empty, broken window. The barn, standing starkly in front of them, seemed sinister. “This place is spooky,” Abby said, feeling only slightly reassured by Cody’s presence.
There were two huge doors that opened in the middle for tractors and hay wagons. Cut into the one on the right was a smaller, human-size door with a latch. Abby took hold of the handle and pressed down firmly with her thumb. It opened.
Abby pushed the door wide and peered in. “Cody?” she called quietly. Immediately she felt him nuzzle her hand. “Stay with me, boy. I’m scared.” Cody had no intention of leaving her side. He knew when Abby needed him.
Abby took one tentative step inside. The door swung shut behind her with a great slam.
“Cody!” she whispered, urgently. Cody nudged her with his nose. “Holy. I can’t take this.” Her heart pounded. She didn’t dare move. She couldn’t see a thing, and she didn’t know where to step. Abby held Cody’s coarse ruff tightly in her left hand. “Let’s get back to the horses. I don’t need a blanket.”
Teeth chattering with cold and nerves, Abby backed up, feeling for the door behind her. Her left shoulder bumped the wall. Suddenly, yellow radiance replaced the gloom. Momentarily blinded, she covered her eyes with her hands. Glancing at the wall she realized that she’d accidentally backed into the light switch. When she looked around, she gasped in wonder at what she saw. Abby could not believe her eyes.
In front of her was a theatre. A wooden stage with a small orchestra pit in front. Curving rows of seats covered with worn and faded burgundy velvet. A real theatre with a real proscenium arch over the stage and ragged burgundy velvet curtains hanging from it.
“Hold on,” muttered Abby aloud. “This is a barn. In the country. On a wrecked-up old farm. What’s a theatre doing here?”

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