Authors: Bonnie Bryant
said, as they jogged their horses across the beautiful undulating prairie, “I think this is the stalest biscuit I ever ate.” She spat out a mouthful of half-chewed biscuit. “Really. It’s disgusting.”
Behind her The Saddle Club and Emily all threw their biscuits into the dirt. “We’re delighted to hear you say that,” Stevie said cheerfully. “We were afraid we’d have to be polite and eat them.”
“We weren’t sure we
be that polite,” Emily added. The sun had hardly risen, but already they were miles away from the ranch house. This
morning they had decided to eat breakfast in the saddle.
“I must have grabbed the biscuits from the wrong jar,” Kate said. “Those must have been prehistoric biscuits left here by the indigenous people who were driven south by the last ice age. My mother was probably saving them to send to an archaeologist.”
Stevie said, “I’ll lend her a stamp.”
“Look!” Kate said. “Coyote tracks!”
“Wow!” said Lisa, with a sarcastic laugh. “More coyote tracks! That must mean coyotes live around here.” They’d seen approximately three million coyote tracks, and upwards of seventeen thousand coyotes. The animals looked like skinny yellow dogs, and they slinked away from horses. They were, Lisa decided, some of the least attractive animals she’d ever seen.
“I’m hungry,” Kate complained, ignoring Lisa. “And I think my mom was going to make omelets for breakfast. And fried potatoes. And sausage.”
“Let’s have another gallop,” Emily suggested.
“Back to the ranch house for food,” added Stevie.
“Exactly. But”—Emily grinned at her friends—
“I’m only going in if we can tie these horses to the hitching post so that we can jump right back into the saddle the moment we’re through!” She meant it jokingly, but her friends didn’t seem to understand that.
“Well, of course,” Carole said immediately. The others nodded.
Emily sighed. She had known her friends were horse-crazy, but she’d had no idea they were this horse-crazy. Emily loved riding more than anything else, and it was the highlight of her trip here; on the other hand, some of the other things to do around the ranch sounded like fun. But she wasn’t going to spoil The Saddle Club’s vacation by saying so.
, with a satisfied sigh, “this morning’s biscuits must have been an aberration. Your mother is the best cook in the world.” The omelet had been stupendous, and the potatoes beyond belief.
“I’m telling you,” Kate replied, “the biscuits were older than you are. Don’t judge Mom by those biscuits, especially since you’ve eaten her good ones, too. I’m going to go get Monica. Want to come?”
The others immediately got up and followed her out of the ranch house. In the early morning, before their ride, Kate had once again knocked on Monica’s door, and once again had gotten no response. “She has to be awake now,” Kate said. They knocked on the door.
Mrs. Hopkins answered. “Hello, girls,” she said.
“May we speak to Monica?” Kate asked.
“I’ll see.” She disappeared, and in a moment Monica herself came to the door. Her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows and her face was sad; she looked once at Kate and then down at the ground. She didn’t seem to even notice the other girls.
“We’re going riding—” Kate began.
“I can’t, Kate,” Monica interrupted, speaking in a voice so quiet that Lisa had to strain to hear. “I just … can’t. So don’t ask me anymore. Please.” She took a step back and shut the door firmly.
Kate looked ready to cry. “I guess I shouldn’t have asked,” she said.
“No, you’re doing the right thing.” Lisa gave Kate a hug. “I know you are. Poor Monica! She looks so unhappy.”
“Come on, Kate,” Stevie urged. “A nice ride will cheer you up, at least.”
They rode and then they ate lunch, and then they rode again. “I know we’ll never cover this whole ranch in a week, but it sure feels like we have,” Carole joked mid-afternoon. She knew for a fact that they’d ridden over all of their usual trails, and, to her surprise, her seat was getting incredibly sore. Maybe her blue jeans were too thin. She remembered a fleece saddle cover she’d seen in a tack catalog. Soft, thick fleece! Now, that would be something worth having.
“You feel that way because all of the sagebrush looks the same,” Emily said. She was beginning to think that the Western landscape, despite its eye-opening vistas and amazing beauty, was also really monotonous. Rocks, grass, dirt, and brush. Rocks, grass, dirt, and brush. “You see one sagebrush, you’ve seen them all. Of course,” she added quickly, “this trip has been the best time of my life.” And it was true, except there really was too much stupid—sagebrush. Emily felt she would pay money to see a nice leafy oak tree.
Stevie caught the slight edge in Emily’s voice and sighed. She sure hoped Emily appreciated the magnitude of her own personal sacrifice.
Stevie was sure she would have found a way to take Stewball to the Wild West Show, no matter what the Devines said. She and Stewball were sacrificing their encore shot at glory just to wander around the prairie all day long. Not that Stevie minded—riding was the ultimate fun—but she hoped Emily appreciated it, was all. She really hoped so.
“Switch places with me, Stevie,” Lisa called. “That flat-footed horse of yours is kicking up enough dust to fill the Grand Canyon.” She had no idea where on the ranch they were: For the past half hour she’d only been able to see the haze of brown dirt generated by Stewball’s hooves. She was covered in dirt, and she was starting to itch.
“This flat-footed horse,” Stevie said grandly, “is a showbiz superstar.”
“Then maybe you ought to sign him up for ballet lessons to improve his movement. Unless, of course, you think he’s kicking up dust on purpose, to bug me.”
“I’m sure that’s it.” Stevie spoke to the horse: “Now, Stewball, sweetie, quit annoying your aunt Lisa.” Stewball craned his neck around and
looked at Lisa. He blinked at her apologetically and walked on. The dust stopped.
“Amazing,” Lisa said.
“It’s just that we’ve hit a spot of grass,” Carole pointed out. “Stewball couldn’t walk differently if he tried.”
“Could too,” Stevie said.
“Could not,” Carole countered.
“I don’t care, I’m just happy to be out of my dust cloud,” Lisa said. “I was starting to feel like that comic-strip character Pig Pen.”
“You look sort of like him,” Emily observed. Lisa had dust streaked down her cheeks. It had settled into the folds of her clothing, and it lay across Chocolate’s coat like a veil.
“Oh well, at least I’m on a horse,” Lisa said cheerfully. If she’d been walking on foot behind Stewball, she probably would have been buried to her ears in dust. Lisa closed her eyes and for a moment dreamed of a steaming hot bubble bath and some nice fresh clothes—a skirt perhaps, her nice blue one, that went so well with that new ruffled shirt—
, so long as it wasn’t another pair of blue jeans.
She gasped and sat up, urging Chocolate forward.
“What’s wrong?” Carole asked. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I think my mother’s spirit just invaded my body. It was horrifying.”
“It’s okay,” Carole said soothingly. “You’re out here at the ranch and on a horse.”
Lisa thought that Chocolate’s endless swaying motion was about to wear her hipbones out. “I know,” she said. “I know exactly where I am.”
Emily jogged over, grinning. “Isn’t this fun?”
did manage a quick shower. With the dirt scrubbed out of her ears and the folds of her eyelids, she felt human again. When she came out of the bathroom, she saw Emily lying across her bunk with her eyes closed, a picture of exhaustion.
“Em, are you okay?” she asked. Since their first day, Emily seemed to have become used to spending long hours in the saddle and hadn’t been overly tired. Still, today had been a riding marathon.
Emily opened one eye. “Do you think the Devines would care if I took my pillow into the ranch house and sat on it during dinner?” She
grinned wryly. “I think I’m beginning to understand the meaning of the term
Lisa nodded. “Me too.”
Carole looked up from her bunk, where she was trying to find one clean shirt to wear to dinner. “I saw these great cushiony fleece saddle covers—”
“Don’t tell us,” Emily said. “Unless you saw four of them in the Devines’ tack room, I don’t want to hear a single word about them. I’ll just get envious.”
Stevie had zipped into the bathroom when Lisa had left it. Now she came out, scrubbing her damp, clean hair with a towel. “Envious of what? Us? For getting to ride all the time?”
Emily groaned and rolled over. “Oh, definitely,” she said. Her sarcasm was unmistakable. “I’m sure that’s it.”
Stevie made a sound through her nose. Given that she and Stewball could be accepting Academy Awards right now for their wonderful, emotionally compelling performances in the historic Wild West Show, Emily ought to sound a little more grateful.
Kate had gone to the ranch house to put on some clean clothes, but she came back to walk
with the girls to dinner. “Good news,” she said. “It’s ham and beans and cornbread, and lots of it.”
They hustled out the door. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Lisa said. “One thing about riding this much, it makes you hungry.” She stumbled over a root. “Ouch!” she said, rubbing her hip.
“Are you okay?” Kate asked.
Lisa grinned. “Ever heard the phrase
certainly know what it means,” Stevie offered. She laughed, and suddenly all of them were laughing. The tension that had built up during their afternoon ride disappeared.
“I’d just like to point out,” Emily said, grinning, “that I’m walking faster than all of you.”
“I’d say that we were walking slowly to keep you company,” Carole said, “except that it wouldn’t be true. I can’t move any faster.”
“What happened to you being the worn-out one, anyway?” Stevie demanded.
Emily shook her head. “I don’t know. I think maybe this trip has been good for me.”
“You can say that again,” Lisa replied. “It’s been good for all of us.”
“Ride, ride, ride,” Stevie muttered. Lisa whacked Stevie’s arm, and they all laughed.
They went into the ranch house and sat down. Emily stowed her crutches beneath her chair, as always. “Hey,” she said, looking down at the place settings on the table, “are we expecting the honeymoon couples?”
“Count again,” Mrs. Devine advised.
“Monica!” Kate said, with a delighted smile, just as Monica and her parents appeared in the door. “Hi, Monica! Come sit by me!”
Monica flushed, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable, but the soft smile she gave Kate was genuine. “Hi,” she said. She fumbled with her crutches and the back of her chair, and for a moment, after she sat down, she seemed too upset to look at anyone. But, Carole thought, she had come to dinner, and that was a major improvement. Maybe they would be able to get her on a horse after all.
Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins fluttered around their daughter, looking anxious. “Let me take those for you, dear,” her mother said, reaching for her crutches.
“Mom, I’m fine.” Monica let the crutches drop to the floor. “Please sit down.”
“Yes, please, dinner’s ready,” Mrs. Devine said in a friendly voice. They all sat and began to eat, but for a moment there was silence at the table. No one seemed to know just what to say. Carole felt she ought to break the ice, but how?
“I’m Carole Hanson,” she said at last. “I’m one of Kate’s friends from Virginia.”
Monica looked shyly grateful. “I’m afraid I don’t remember your names,” she said. The rest of the girls introduced themselves in turn. Monica nodded and smiled, and then bent her head down, eating. She still seemed very uncomfortable, but it was clear to Carole that she was trying hard.
This must be so difficult for her
, Carole thought. She felt a wave of sympathy for Monica.
Across the table, Kate looked a bit uncomfortable, too. “We had the best ride today,” she said at last. “We went everywhere—”
“—and she means
,” Stevie cut in.
“I’ve spent longer in the saddle in the last few days than I have out of it,” Emily agreed. “Everyone else has been here before, Monica, but this is my first time. I’ve never seen anything like this countryside.”
Monica looked interested, but Mr. Hopkins cleared his throat awkwardly. “Can we please not
talk about riding?” he asked. He cleared his throat again and made a small motion toward his daughter. “Please.”
Monica flushed and looked at her plate again, Carole wondered if Monica really minded if they talked about riding. After all, she thought, recalling their week, what else was there to talk about?
The phone rang. Mr. Devine went to answer it, while the others at the table sat in silence once again. Carole tried to think of something besides horses to talk about, but the more she tried, the more she could think only about horses. Kate looked upset. Monica looked as though she, too, was trying to think of a topic for conversation.
“Oh, well, Harry, that’s nice of you.” Mr. Devine’s voice carried clearly into the dining room. “I know our ordinary guests would love it, but you’ve never seen anything like these friends of Kate’s. All these girls want to do is ride. We haven’t been able to get them out of the saddle all week. Thanks anyway. Bye.” He hung up and came back to the table, smiling cheerfully. “Sorry for the interruption,” he said.
“Who was that?” Mrs. Devine asked.
Mr. Devine buttered a piece of cornbread before he spoke. “Harry Foreman, from up the road. He organizes white-water rafting trips on the river, girls, and since I’d told him you were here he wanted to invite you out tomorrow. He’s got a raft that’s nearly empty. But I knew you’d rather ride. Right?” He looked around at their solemn faces and put the piece of cornbread down. “Right?”
“Right,” Carole said slowly. She tried not to remember that she’d always wanted to go white-water rafting.
“Right,” Lisa said dutifully, trying to sound like she meant it. White-water rafting wasn’t something her parents would ever try. If she didn’t go now, when would she get another chance?