Having something of a guilty conscience, Torry debated whether to tell his father about his conversation with Tegan the night before, finally deciding against it because he felt the senior O’Malley might not react so well to it. His mother was another story, however. First chance he had to tell her came right after breakfast, while Peter was upstairs working in his office and Tegan was still asleep in her room.
“I don’t think she believed me, Mom.”
“It doesn’t make any difference whether she believed you or not. I still wish you hadn’t told her those things, Tor. I’m not sure Tegan is ready for all that yet.”
“I was younger than she is when you called Monet from the past, and I wasn’t much older when you called Wyatt Earp for Dad.”
“Yes, you were very young when they visited us, but you didn’t really understand the danger involved in doing that back then. And you were much too young to do it yourself, so your father and I didn’t worry much about you getting tangled up in it. Tegan is a whole different matter with these things.”
“Yeah, I know. But it didn’t matter about me anyway. I don’t have any of the gifts.”
Maggie squeezed her son’s forearm. “I’m glad you don’t have any of the gifts. Your father and I worry all the time about other people finding out about us. Fortunately for us, most people think we’re weird because he’s an author and I’m a painter. Can you imagine what they would think, and possibly do, if they knew about our gifts? We’re fortunate we live in the 21st Century and not in the 17th or 18th Century when they were still burning people like us at the stake. Life in this time period is too difficult as it is. We don’t need any other burdens on us.”
Torry’s head bobbed. “Well, I just thought you should know that she’s asking questions about these things.”
Maggie tousled his hair lovingly. “I’m glad you told me, but don’t tell your father about it. I’ll handle that.”
Again, Torry nodded. “Thank you. I really didn’t want to face him with all this. You know how he can be when things go wrong.”
Maggie smiled. “After twenty-seven years of marriage, I’d better know.”
When she awoke that Saturday morning, Tegan’s first thoughts focused on her second encounter with the strange man who called himself Richard Saunders. The incident seemed so unreal to her now that she convinced herself it must have been a dream like the one she had in study hall back in early February. Yes, it must have been a dream. She told herself that repeatedly as she went through her morning routine of feeding the cats, Vespa, and Lucky.
After chores, Tegan called Toni to tell her about the dream of Richard Saunders and get her perspective on it.
“This is too weird, Teegs. Why would you be dreaming about this guy? How old did you say he was?”
“I don’t know how old he is, but he looks like he’s around thirty.”
“Maybe he’s somebody in your future. I’ve been reading about things like this. Maybe you’re clairvoyant and see into the future through your dreams.”
“I don’t think I’m clairvoyant, Toni. It was only a dream. You know how dreams are. They can be really weird. I mean, I sometimes go flying in my dreams. I just jump into the air like Superman and float along above everything. It really feels great when I’m having a flying dream. Other times I’m standing straight up and gliding a foot or two above the ground. Those dreams are cool, too, because I can get somewhere really fast that way.”
“I don’t know, Tegan. I think there’s more to this than just you dreaming. There’s something paranormal going on here. Something supernatural. Your house is haunted, isn’t it?”
“That’s what Torry and my parents say, but I don’t believe it.”
“Why not? Didn’t you tell me you used to have these friends when you were little that only you could see? What were their names again?”
“I don’t remember any of that. Torry and my parents tell people I had these invisible friends that I would talk to and play with all the time. They told me one was named Amy, and another one was Eric. They said I didn’t like him. There were a few others. Nick was the one I liked the most, Mom said. And there was Pam and Emily, and I think a boy named Rick. I’m not sure anymore because I don’t believe I ever had imaginary friends like that. Honestly, Toni, I don’t remember any of that.”
“You’re only trying to block it out of your memory, the same way you’re doing with these dreams about this Richard Saunders.”
“No, I’m not. I only think it’s no big deal. They’re only dreams and nothing more than dreams. The same with those imaginary friends I was supposed to have when I was little. They were only in my imagination. They weren’t real.”
“If you say so.”
Tegan didn’t like Toni’s tone, but she withheld any comments about it because she knew Toni was still very fragile emotionally.
Toni had been very close to her mother because her father had often been away for long periods of time as an over-the-road trucker or even longer stretches when he was in the hospital after the accident that permanently disabled him. Before she died, Micki Taylor told Toni that her grandparents had visited her in a dream to tell her they were all right and happy in the next life and that she shouldn’t cry for them anymore. Because Micki had revealed this to her, Toni expected Micki to do the same thing with her, but so far, Toni had not dreamed of her mother once since her untimely passing. Of all her friends, Toni had only shared this with Tegan, putting a weight on Tegan that she didn’t mind carrying because she loved Toni as the sister she had always wanted.
So instead of debating the issue with Toni and possibly upsetting her, Tegan chose to change the subject. “Hey, let’s forget about all that stuff and do something. It’s nice outside, so why don’t you come over and we can go horseback riding? We’ll go over to Aunt Kate’s and borrow one of their horses for you, and I’ll ride Lucky. She really needs the exercise.”
“That’s a great idea. When do you want me to come over?”
“Right now, if you want.”
“See you soon.”
Maggie told Tegan and Toni to be back from riding by lunchtime. The two girls saw no problem with that. After two hours on the trails through the woods and along the back roads in the area, they returned to the O’Malley place with several minutes to spare, Tegan atop Lucky and Toni on her cousin Nathan’s mule named Jackson. Vespa greeted them with a string of barks as she followed them to the gate of the big corral. Jackson was accustomed to yapping dogs, so he paid Vespa little mind until she came too close to the mule’s hind legs. One swift kick from him found the mark on the dog’s ribs. Vespa let out a yelp and raced away toward the house.
“Dumb dog!” Tegan said. “She should know better. Lucky is always kicking Vespa when she gets too close.”
The two girls dismounted outside the corral beneath the budding branches of the giant oak at the edge of the old barnyard and tied the reins to a pair of old fence posts. They slowly walked toward the house.
As soon as the girls left them, Lucky edged away from the oak as far as she could, but Jackson simply stood there. Something of a lazy animal, he wouldn’t move unless he absolutely had to. Suddenly, the old tree trembled, and the ground around its three-foot-wide trunk vibrated, as if an earthquake had struck the area. Jackson stumbled away from the oak and let out a frightened whinny in Lucky’s direction. The palomino had the expression in her eyes that was something akin to “I told you so” in human. The mule brayed at her again, but she merely turned her tail to him in reply.
Tegan and Toni stopped at the driveway when they heard Jackson whine the first time. They turned around to ascertain that all was right with Lucky and Jackson. Neither girl noticed the shaking oak, but Toni squinted and tilted her head to the right as if her ear ached.
“What was that?” she winced.
“What was what?” Tegan asked.
“What sound? I didn’t hear anything.”
“It was like one of those sounds from a hearing test. You know, the kind that feels like somebody is poking your eardrum with a sharp pencil or something.”
“I don’t hear those. My dad says it’s because I inherited the bad hearing he got from too many ear infections as a kid. Torry has the same problem as well. But not Mom. She can hear me whisper when I’m three rooms away from her. Come on, let’s go eat. It’s noon, and I’m starving from all that riding.”
Reluctantly, Toni followed Tegan toward the house again, but just for good measure, she looked back over her shoulder three times before they went inside. Nothing out of the ordinary in plain view, but even so, she sensed something was amiss.
Peter O’Malley skooched his chair closer to the dinner table. “What was Jackson bellowing about? I could hear him all the way up in my office.”
“Probably something in the woods,” said Tegan. “We tied him and Lucky up to the old fence posts near the giant oak on the far side of the old barnyard. I don’t think he’s used to seeing too many wild animals over at Aunt Kate’s. They probably don’t come too close to the electric fence Nathan has around their pasture.”
O’Malley glanced up at the kitchen clock on the wall, noting the time was three minutes after noon. He looked at his wife and saw she was glaring directly at him. Without her saying a word, he knew exactly what that expression meant.
“You’re probably right. He must have been spooked by a wild animal. You two most likely scared up a couple of deer down there, and they startled poor old Jackson when they ran off.”
“Did you enjoy your ride with Jackson, Toni?” asked Maggie.
“Yes, I did.”
“Jackson might not be much to look at,” said Peter, “but he’s well trained for riding. Tegan rode him at the county fair last year and won a couple of blue ribbons.”
“This year I’ll be riding Lucky at the fair. She’s almost ready for all the events now, but after I work with her some more, she’ll be all set to win it all this year. The biggest thing she needs to learn is jumping.”
“You can set up a course for her in the west pasture,” said Peter. “Plenty of room there, and it’s the only flat piece of ground on the whole place.”
“I’ve already got that planned out, Dad. Nathan is making me some stanchions. All I need is a couple of lightweight crossbars for her to jump over. Nathan suggested we get one-inch plastic pipe for that.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Peter. “At least I can contribute that much to your success.”
“Toni, now that you’re a member of 4-H have you thought about doing something at the fair this year?” asked Maggie.
“I’d like to enter the riding competition, but I don’t have a horse.”
“Why don’t you ask Aunt Kate if you can ride Jackson in the fair? You can enter as horseless horse participant. Jackson’s already trained. All you have to do is practice with him.”
“I’m not sure my dad would let me, even if I had Jackson to ride.”
“Why don’t you ask your father and see what he says first?” suggested Maggie. “He might fool you and let you enter the fair.”
Peter frowned at his wife. He knew exactly what she was thinking, and he was uncertain whether he liked the idea or not. If anybody in the area needed a sweetening spell cast on them, it was definitely Vern Taylor. But influencing a relationship between parent and child might be more like interfering than helping.
“Yes, go ahead and ask him, Toni,” said Peter. “What have you got to lose? The worst that can happen is he says no.”
“I guess you’re right, Mr. O’Malley. What have I got to lose?”
The next morning Tegan and Toni laid out the jumping course on the strip of pasture west of the house just as Peter had suggested. They set up the stanchions in pairs twelve feet apart to give Lucky lots of room to go between them. Fifty feet of flat, grassy ground separated the two jumps.
Tegan started Lucky’s training by walking her through the course, leading the palomino between the stanchions to get her accustomed to them. Of course, neither obstacle had a crossbar in place yet; those would come later once Lucky accepted the idea of going between the poles. Tegan led the mare through the course twice each way before handing the reins to Toni and having her repeat the exercise two more times in order to give both girl and horse the experience.
After the four walkthroughs, Tegan mounted and rode Lucky over the route at a slow walk several times before increasing the pace to a trot. Five trips back and forth and Tegan kicked Lucky into a canter for another half dozen circuits. She would have continued to a gallop, but decided against it because the course was too short beyond the stanchions. She dismounted and offered the reins to Toni.
“Now you ride her through it just like I did.”
“You want me to ride Lucky?”
“Yes, I do. It’s good for you and for Lucky. Just like walking her through the course was.”
Toni climbed atop the mare and proceeded to put her through the paces, while Tegan sat on the ground of a nearby oak and watched. As soon as she had repeated the exercise, she dismounted, tied Lucky to a stakeout post, and joined Tegan under the tree.
“Now we let Lucky rest for a few minutes, while I put the crossbars on the ground at the base of each stanchion.”
Tegan and Toni repeated the previous workout of walking Lucky through the course and riding her through again at various gaits. This gave the mare the idea that the crossbars had to be stepped over and not stepped on. After this exercise set, Tegan put the crossbars on the lowest pegs in the stanchions, which were six inches off the ground. Girls and horse did the walkthrough as they had before; Tegan first, then Toni; each doing it twice again.
“Now we ride her through it. Watch me closely, Toni. There’s a technique to this. It’s simple, but it’s important that you do it perfectly so Lucky understands the command without you saying it.”
Tegan mounted the mare and urged her into motion at a walk for a few steps. Another nudge into the horse’s ribs increased the pace to a trot. Tegan leaned forward as they approached the first stanchion, and at the exact moment, she squeezed her knees against palomino’s shoulders, signaling Lucky to jump over the crossbar. Without hesitation, the young mare obeyed the physical command and executed the feat flawlessly. After three trips through, Tegan increased the speed to a canter and repeated the lesson another four times. Satisfied with Lucky’s learning curve, she halted the mare under the oak tree, dismounted, and held the reins out to Toni.
“I’m not sure I can do that, Teegs.”
“Yes, you can. It’s easy. You watched me do it, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but you’ve done this lots of times with other horses, and I haven’t done it once with any horse.”
“It’s easy, Toni. All you have to do is lean forward as you approach the bar, and when you want Lucky to jump over it, you squeeze your knees together. That’s Lucky’s cue to make the jump. It’s also necessary to keep you in the saddle because when she lands on the other side you get a little jolt that could throw you if you’re not ready for it.” Tegan thrust the reins at Toni again. “Now get up there and take her through the course just like I did.”
Toni hesitated for a second before finally taking the leather straps, although still with some trepidation. Foot into the stirrup and a little help from Tegan, she climbed aboard the mare. She looked down at her friend, while adjusting her helmet. “I’m not sure I should be doing this.”
“Of course, you should. There’s nothing to it. Just give Lucky the right commands, and she’ll do the rest. Now take her through the course.”
Still a bit unsure of herself, Toni urged the horse into motion with a verbal command and a tightening of her legs. After a walk for a few paces, she dug her heels into Lucky’s ribs, and the palomino went into a trot toward the first stanchion. At the precise moment, Toni squeezed her knees hard against the mare’s shoulders and leaned forward. Horse and rider took the first jump easily. And the second.
“Now take her through three more times at a trot and then four times at a canter.”
“Why don’t I just stop with doing it at a trot? I don’t think I’m ready for anything faster yet.”
Before Tegan could argue with Toni, Maggie yelled out the side door for them to come in for lunch.
“Okay, you win for now,” said Tegan. “But after lunch you take her through at a canter. She needs the practice and so do you. Come on. It’s noon and time for lunch. Just tie Lucky to one of those old fence posts for now.”
Toni finished riding the mare through the course for the fourth time at a walk before halting beneath the giant oak. She jumped down from the saddle, brought the reins forward over Lucky’s head, and started toward the nearest fence post, the one closest to the tree. When the horse balked at going in this direction, Toni jerked on the straps to make the animal obey. No good. Lucky twisted to the right, away from the oak and toward the last of the three posts.
“What’s the matter with you, horse?” demanded Toni as she gripped the reins tightly with both hands.
“She’s just being temperamental,” said Tegan. “Just tie her to the last post, and let’s go have lunch.” Without waiting for Toni to secure the mare, she started for the house.
Toni tied the straps to the post and followed Tegan. As she passed the oak, snoring resonated from the ancient tree. Startled by the sound, Toni’s feet moved her away from the oak, while her head twisted to the right to see where the noise originated, her eyes drawn to the massive trunk of the giant tree, which no longer seemed like a tree but more like a window. A blink of her eyes and Toni saw ―
With disbelief thrashing through her thoughts, Toni hustled after Tegan.I must be going crazy. She shook her head to rid her mind of the sound and the image.I had to be imagining that. I heard it and saw it, and I don’t believe it. Two more steps to Tegan. Honestly. A man in bed snoring? That’s just crazy.