"I bet that jump's three feet tall!" George Fayne exclaimed, pointing to a large post-and-rail fence in the middle of the outdoor riding ring. She flashed Nancy Drew a challenging look. "Think you can get Hopscotch over it?"
"Let's see," Nancy replied, her blue eyes sparkling. Turning toward the fence, she urged on the glossy bay mare, her adrenaline pumping as she saw the fence looming ahead. Hopscotch lifted off the ground, and Nancy leaned forward, taking the fence with ease. Exhilarated, she guided Hopscotch to the side of the ring. "Made it! Your turn, George."
"I was afraid you'd say that," George said, and grinned. "Oh, well, here goes."
Nancy watched George sail over the fence on the horse she was riding, a coppery chestnut gelding named Lancelot. At the other end of the ring, their friend Laura Passano cantered on Morning Glory, the largest and friskiest horse of the three.
"Wow!" George said as she pulled up next to Nancy. "I'd forgotten how much fun riding can be."
Tucking a lock of her reddish blond hair back up under her helmet, eighteen-year-old Nancy glanced over at her friend. Dark-haired George loved sports and outdoor activities. She was the perfect guest at a horse farm, Nancy thought.
"I'm glad we decided to take Laura up on her invitation," George said. "I just hope we can relax and ride horses -- not solve another mystery."
Nancy chuckled, then made a face. "Solving a mystery is the last thing on my mind," she promised.
Nancy had earned quite a reputation as a detective in her hometown of River Heights. Wherever she went, she always seemed to land in the middle of a mystery, as both she and George knew only too well.
"You guys hungry?" Laura asked as she rode over to Nancy and George. "I think it's about time for dinner." She stroked Morning Glory's soft black mane as he pawed the ground. "Let's go in. I can tell the horses are hungry, too," she added.
"Now that you mention it," George said, her eyes lighting up, "I'm starved."
Nancy glanced down the hill to the barn, a large red building with a pitched roof. Surrounding it was a lush pasture, where five or six horses grazed calmly on the dark green grass.
"Hopscotch is the best," Nancy said to Laura as they started back to the stable. She patted the mare's silky neck.
"I thought you two would get along," Laura said brightly. "And how did you like Lancelot, George?"
"He's beautiful, and he's easy to ride," George said. "Everything about this afternoon has been perfect. It's just too bad Bess couldn't come." George's cousin, Bess Marvin, was Nancy's other best friend.
"Well, Bess couldn't miss the benefit party for the River Heights Children's Museum," Nancy pointed out. "Especially considering that she and her mom organized the whole thing."
"I guess she's excused, then," Laura joked.
Laura hadn't changed much since Nancy had last seen her, two summers ago, when the Passanos came to River Heights to visit Laura's aunt. She was still sweet and friendly, Nancy thought. When Laura had written to invite Nancy and her friends to visit the Passanos' horse farm in Maryland, the River Heights girls eagerly accepted. Nancy and George had arrived that day, and Laura immediately took them riding.
Outside the barn door, the three girls dismounted, and Laura gave Morning Glory an affectionate hug.
"Was Morning Glory born here at Sky Meadow Farm?" Nancy asked, admiring the horse's gorgeous pitch-black coat, broken only by the white star on his forehead and his two white socks. His dark eyes looked alert as he held his head up proudly.
"We breed horses for hunting and showing," Laura replied. "But our foals are still too young for me to ride. And my old horse, Dundee, isn't up to going on long fox hunts anymore. One day I saw Morning Glory at a breeder's in the area, and I fell in love with him. Unfortunately, everyone else around here wanted him, too. My dad and I outbid everyone and won him last spring in an auction -- it was pretty fierce." Laura paused, then frowned. For a split second, Nancy thought Laura seemed troubled.
"What happened?" Nancy asked.
Laura shook her head quickly. "Another girl, Alexa Shaw, wanted Morning Glory, too, she explained. "She's barely spoken to me since."
"Who's Alexa Shaw?" George asked.
"A girl I graduated from high school with," Laura explained. "Her mother and my mom are best friends. Mrs. Shaw's nice, but Alexa's nothing but trouble. She's really pretty and totally spoiled. All our lives, our mothers tried to push us together, hoping we'd be friends. They shouldn't have bothered. But I do feel sorry for her -- her father died last year in a riding accident."
Just then a short, small man with tousled gray hair and bright blue eyes approached the girls. With his hunched shoulders and leathery face, Nancy thought he looked like someone out of a fairy tale -- a leprechaun, maybe.
"Can I help you, girls?" the man asked, setting down a bucket of water. "Let me take the horses from you."
"Oh, yes, Peter, thanks," Laura said, handing Morning Glory's reins to him. "I'll help you in a few minutes." Laura introduced the girls to Peter Greenbriar, the groom at Sky Meadow.
He hurried to take the reins from Nancy and George. "I see you've been using the curb bit on Lancelot's bridle lately, Miss Laura," he commented in a thin, nasal voice. "That's good. With his tough mouth, he needs a strong bit."
"I'm pretty careful about Lancelot's bit," Laura assured him.
"Peter's a great help to my mother and me," Laura explained as the groom led the three horses away. "We have a dozen horses at the stable. We'd never be able to take care of them without him. And Dad doesn't get involved in the hands-on care of the horses. He handles the business side of the farm."
"Can we have a tour of the stable?" George asked.
Laura looked at her watch. "As long as it's quick," she said. "I like to cool down Morning Glory myself."
Inside the stable door, which slid open sideways, Nancy found herself standing in a large center aisle. Twelve stalls ran the length of it. Nancy could see horses bobbing their heads over their half-doors. Only a few stalls were empty. On the opposite side was a tack room, where the saddles and bridles were stored, as well as a feed room, an office, and a few more stalls. Nancy sniffed. The stable had a pungent, musty smell of hay and leather.
"Here's a sweet-looking horse," Nancy said, stopping beside a dappled gray mare with soft brown eyes. The mare nuzzled her gently.
"This is Dundee," Laura explained. "She's part Arabian -- that's why her face is slightly scooped. She's a bit too old to hunt or show, so we use her for breeding. She gave birth to an adorable foal last spring."
Nancy and George reached over Dundee's stall door to pat her neck.
Laura glanced at her watch again. "Wow, it's six o'clock already, and dinner's at seven. Why don't you guys go back to the house to change, while I take care of Morning Glory?"
After giving Dundee one last pat, Nancy and George walked back to the Passanos' home, an old stone farmhouse surrounded by large oaks and maples. Nancy and George entered through the kitchen.
Mrs. Passano, who had not been home when the girls arrived, was in the kitchen, cutting up vegetables. "Nancy, George!" she said warmly. "It's wonderful to see you." She set down the knife, walked over to the girls, and gave each of them a hug. She was a petite woman, considerably shorter than either of the girls. Nancy thought Mrs. Passano's chin-length brown hair, streaked blond by the sun, was extremely attractive.
"It's wonderful to be here," Nancy said.
"It sure is," George added.
Mrs. Passano smiled. "Why don't you two take showers and relax? We'll have time to catch up at dinner."
George and Nancy headed down a hallway toward the stairs. In the hallway, Nancy noticed that an old armchair was being used as a soft bed for a black-and-white cat. Paintings of horses and dogs hung on the walls, and a riding jacket lay tossed across a straight-backed chair. Nancy liked the house's cozy, lived-in look.
Upstairs, Nancy and George changed out of their jeans and took quick showers. Promptly at seven, they joined Laura and her mother at the dining-room table.
"Sit down, girls," Mrs. Passano said. "We're having roast chicken and fresh vegetables that we grew ourselves." Mrs. Passano served the two girls the steaming food from a nearby platter.
"Mmm," Nancy said, inhaling the fragrant smell of the stuffing. "This reminds me of Hannah's special roast chicken dish." Hannah Gruen, the Drews' housekeeper, had lived with Nancy and her father, Carson Drew, ever since Nancy was three.
"Please give Hannah and your dad my best," Mrs. Passano told her. "I'm afraid Laura's dad is away on business. He's attending two auctions out of state. He's sorry he won't be able to see you."
"Mom has some exciting news," Laura said as she took a bite of her mashed potatoes. "A couple of months ago, she was named master of the hounds at the Mill River Hunt -- the first woman ever.
Mrs. Passano smiled. "I was very lucky to get the job," she said modestly. "Unfortunately, the former master, Cameron Shaw, died last winter -- in a fox-hunting accident. His horse fell while jumping a fence, and Cameron broke his neck. It was very sad. He and his wife were close friends of ours. It's been hard on her."
Nancy and George expressed sympathy, and everyone ate in silence for a minute. Nancy found herself brooding on the fact that the Passanos were into fox hunting. That was one sport she just didn't understand.
"I've ridden a lot, but I've never ridden in a fox hunt," Nancy admitted. "I don't think I'd have much fun chasing a fox."
"I totally agree," George chimed in. Nancy could hear a note of passion rising in her friend's voice.
"Oh, I feel the same way you do," Mrs. Passano said. Nancy looked at her in surprise. "Laura and I and many other riders at Mill River are against chasing foxes. In fact, one of my goals as master of the hounds is to persuade the Mill River board to make the hunt a drag hunt instead."
"A drag hunt?" Nancy asked, curious.
"That's when a fox's scent is dragged over the countryside for the hounds to follow. No live foxes are hunted," Laura explained, taking a bite of corn.
"That sounds much better," George declared.
"Unfortunately," Mrs. Passano said, "a few members of the board have been hard to convince. They're very traditional. They want the sport to remain the way it's always been. They think the real adventure is following the fox wherever it leads, rather than along a set path." She sighed. "It's going to be a real battle, because the vote has to be unanimous. I'll do everything I can to get them to change, though."
"I sure hope you succeed," George said. "But in the meantime -- the poor fox!"
"Well, the fox is hardly ever caught," Laura assured her. "In all my years of hunting, I've only seen one fox killed."
"Really?" Nancy asked, surprised and relieved.
"Sure. I mean, it's not like the hunt's aim is to hurt the fox," Laura said. "The point is to gallop around the countryside and have an exciting ride." Laura paused and studied her friends carefully. "Why don't you guys come out with us tomorrow and see for yourselves? You're both terrific riders."
Nancy hesitated. She still didn't like the idea of fox hunting. Catching George's worried glance, she could tell her friend felt the same way.
"Tomorrow's the last day of cubbing -- the warm-up to the hunting season, when the huntsman works all the hounds," Mrs. Passano explained. "Opening day for the regular hunting season is in three days."
"How long does the regular hunting season last?" Nancy asked.
"The Mill River Hunt goes out every Saturday from the end of September to January," Mrs. Passano said. "After that it gets too cold to ride."
"You guys should really try it," Laura urged. "That way, you'll see what hunting's like firsthand. You might give us some fresh ideas on how to change the board's mind."
Nancy finished her potatoes while considering Laura's invitation. Maybe she could get some ideas on how to change the hunt. Glancing at George, she saw her shrug, then give a thumbs-up sign.
"Okay, we'll go, Laura," Nancy said.
Just then Nancy heard the front door open. Startled, she saw Peter Greenbriar burst into the dining room.
"Mrs. Passano," the groom announced breathlessly, "it's Dundee! She's on the floor of her stall, panting and wheezing. I'm scared she's not going to make it!"
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