By Patty Wilber
CHAPTER TWO—GREEN CHILE AND HORSES
The first thing Callie saw when her eyes struggled open was a picture on the wall. It was her picture. Her very favorite picture. A bright bay mare had her muzzle buried in deep green grass, and her mini-me bay foal lay sleeping nearby in a patch of bright yellow and pink flowers. Callie rubbed her eyes and blinked.
A dog barked, and the unfamiliar tang of dry air and juniper filled her nose from the open window. She remembered where she was. She untangled herself from the sheet, and went to her suitcase. Tucked between two sweatshirts was her picture. A perfect match to the one on the wall. She stood hers on the dresser and hugged her arms around herself. Her stomach responded and let out a tremendous rumble.
She left yesterday’s clothes on the chair and slid instead into jeans, a white tee-shirt with a horse on the front, and bright red socks. Then she smoothed the sheets, pulled the yellow bedspread in place and arranged the pillows. They had lived in a pretty shabby apartment in Chicago, but her mother always insisted on a made bed.
Callie followed her nose to the sunny kitchen. Aunt Martha turned from the sink as she entered and said, “Hello, sleepy-head. Would you like some breakfast?”
“Yes, please,” said Callie.
“Okay,” said Aunt Martha. “Egg and bacon burrito all right?”
“Yes,” said Callie. The bacon reminded her of Sunday breakfast back home, and Callie pushed her lips together, determined not to cry.
Aunt Martha saw the girl’s shoulders wilt, and wiped her hands on a dish towel. “Sit down right here,” she said, and squeezed Callie’s shoulders as the girl sank into the wooden chair. “It’ll be a couple of minutes, but there’s milk or orange juice,” she pointed to the cartons on the table, “To tide you over. After breakfast, how ’bout if we find you an old pair of boots? Then you can explore the barn, and see the horses. O.K.?”
Callie noticed that her aunt did not say, “Be careful”, so she nodded and poured herself a glass of orange juice.
The kitchen window looked out onto the covered porch which ran along the entire front of the house. A bird-feeder full of black sunflower seeds swayed at one corner as two small birds with reddish heads argued over the perch. A glass tube of red sugar water hung nearby and a tiny hummingbird flashed red and green in the morning sun as it swooped to and from the red feeder.
Aunt Martha said, “I love the hummingbirds. They are just starting to come back for the summer. I’ll put up more feeders pretty soon, and then we’ll have lots more coming by!” She paused to stir the eggs and then said, “Do you want green chile?”
The white truck was still parked in front of the house, but beyond a pasture stretched away in a green carpet and up onto a rocky bluff with small juniper trees. Calle took another sip of orange juice and looked at Aunt Martha.
“Green chile?” she asked.
“Very New Mexico,” said Aunt Martha. “This batch is pretty mild.”
“No, thanks,” said Callie.
Aunt Martha emerged from the closet under the stairs with three pairs of boots in her hands and set them on the floor. “I keep forgetting to replace that light bulb,” she said. “But let’s see what we’ve got.”
One pair of boots was big, with thick soles. They looked like they could fit Paul Bunyan. ”Not these,” said Aunt Martha. She held up the other two pair. One was quite small, and she just shook her head at them and set them next to the Paul Bunyan boots. “Ah, but, these look like they might do until we can get you your own,” she said, first inspecting Callie’s red stockinged feet and then the boots.
She handed them to Callie. They were plain brown, and rather dusty, but they were real boots. When she took riding lessons, she had worn her school shoes. She did not have money for boots and the instructor had just required shoes with a heel. Everyone else had boots, but Callie didn’t care too much. She had just wanted to ride.
Callie plopped onto the hardwood floor, and pulled on the boots on over her red socks, hoping. She wiggled her toes. She stood and walked up and down the hallway. Her feet slid around a little bit inside, but the boots made a satisfying clomping sound on the floor and she liked the way their tips peeked out from under her jeans. She kept checking on them as they walked across the yard toward the white-trimmed red barn.
There were four brown and white Dutch rabbits in a hutch at the back of the yard. They looked much tamer than the jack rabbit Callie had seen in yesterday’s evening sun. As they left the yard, Callie spotted the horses in a big brown pipe rail pen. She scattered a flock of hens and they ruffled their feathers and tilted their heads as they squawked their disapproval. Her eyes were glued to the black horse. His mane was long and she could imagine how it would feel to gallop bareback across the pastures on his rippling, muscular back, with the wind humming in her ears. Like the Black Stallion.
“Well, I see you’ve spotted them,” said Aunt Martha, smiling her crinkley-eyed smile. “Looks like Jeff has Punkin in the barn already. Let me go check.”
There were three horses in the corral. Near the black horse stood a whitish one, dotted with tiny dark specks. He walked slowly towards her and she drew back from the fence a little. He blew a gust of air from his nostrils, and gazed at her with big, liquid brown eyes. His lips flapped a little as if he were anticipating a treat. The other horse in the corral was the color of polished bronze and she glittered. Her blond mane and tail were stunning against her darker body. She looked warily at the stranger by the fence, and snorted and threw her head. Callie stared longest at the black. She thought the star on his forehead looked as bright as a real star, and his coat was as black as a moonless night.
“Callie!” Aunt Martha’s voice broke into her reverie. “Jeff’s in here!” Callie followed her Aunt’s voice inside, and saw Martha and Jeff standing near a buckskin gelding tied to a steel ring mounted on the wall. Callie thought his black legs, mane, and tail were pretty against the burnished pumpkin orange of his coat, but she liked the black tips of his ears the best. They flicked in her direction as she approached.
“Jeff is heading out for a ride, Callie. Would you like to go with him?”
“Oh,” said Callie, her face lighting up. “Oh, yes. Yes, please!”
Jeff rolled his eyes and Aunt Martha frowned at him.
“O.K.,” said Aunt Martha. “I’ll get a helmet and sunscreen from the tack room,” she said to Callie. Then, “I’ve got some writing to do up at the house. Jeff will give you a hand saddling up won’t you, Jeff?”
“Sure,” he mumbled. His lips tightened. He walked toward Callie swinging the halter he was carrying and dragging his feet along the dirt in the barn aisle. “Here,” he said, shoving the halter at Callie. “Go get Cloud.”
“Which one is that?” asked Callie, hoping he meant the black. His name could be Storm Cloud or…
Jeff turned his back on her and began brushing Punkin. Callie could hear him murmuring to his horse with each stroke of the currycomb, and he wasn’t too happy. He didn’t see her hesitate before she went out. For her five riding lessons, the horse had already been tied up and saddled.
Back in the corral, she stopped a little short of Cloud and reached her arm to its full length to touch him lightly with her finger tips. “Hi,” she said, trying to sound confident. She heard the quaver in her voice, and knew Cloud did too, but he just swished his tail gently and turned his head to look at her with his large brown eyes. He nuzzled her arm, tickling her with his long whiskers.
Callie stepped forward and patted him, this time, with her whole hand. Then she looked at the halter. Somehow it seemed to have become a confusing tangle. She stared at it for a long minute, and made a feeble attempt to picture it on the horse. The lead rope fell to the ground, near Cloud’s front feet, and lay there like a dead snake. The halter, still gripped in her hands, had not changed a whit. The more she turned it, the more confused she became. Frustration and embarrassment heated her face.
Cloud took a step forward. Callie took a quick step back. Cloud took another step forward and Callie stepped another one back. Cloud planted both his black front hooves on the lead rope. Callie tried to pull it out from under him, but it was anchored there, pinned under one thousand pounds of horse. One salty drop slid down her nose, but before another could follow, Callie rubbed it off on her shoulder and gritted her teeth. She wouldn’t ask Jeff for help, and it really shouldn’t be that hard, she told herself.
Cloud slowly reached his nose toward her, and she side stepped, dropping the halter altogether. Cloud stretched his neck over and blew a little air her. Then he moved and casually placed one foot firmly on the halter where it lay in the dirt, but the lead rope was freed!
Cloud blinked his long white lashes, and then left to get a drink from the water trough. Callie picked up the halter and the rope, took a deep breath and walked cautiously to Cloud’s shoulder. She draped the rope over Cloud’s neck, and took hold of the dusty buckle on the halter. She gave the halter a little shake, and then another. She held it open in front of Cloud, and he slid his head in, muzzle dripping a little.
“Gotcha!” She exhaled with relief as she buckled it. A smile spread across her face and she scratched Cloud’s neck until he closed his eyes and leaned into the pressure just a little.
Now, to lead him to the barn. She held the lead rope as tightly as she could and tried to walk off, but she felt she had to watch him in case he stepped on her. She was not really looking where she was going, and he kept moving toward her off the pressure. She kept moving away as he moved to her and they ended up going in a loop and not toward the corral gate at all. Finally, she let the rope slide through her hands a bit, took a deep breath, laser focused on the gate and marched. Cloud swiveled his ears as if to say “Finally!” and followed politely.
When she entered the barn, it seemed very dark and she paused to let her eyes readjust.
“Where should I tie him?” she asked.
Jeff’s eyes flicked at her feet, and then away. He made a vague motion with his hand. “Anywhere there,” he said. He finished snugging up the cinch on his saddle and said, “What took you so long?”
“I, uh, had a little trouble with the halter,” Callie replied, letting her voice trail off hoping he wouldn’t pay close attention.
His response was a grunt and he mumbled something to Punkin that Callie couldn’t hear much of except, “stupid” and “easy”. He picked up a bucket and brought it to her.
“Here’s the brushes,” he said, setting them on the ground without a sound, so as not to scare the horse. He started to give Cloud a pat, but let out a groan instead.
“No WONDER it took you so long!” He took the lead rope right out of her hands, undid the buckle, and slid the halter off. “This is upside down.”
He put it on correctly, and shoved the lead rope toward Callie, but then pulled it back again and tied a slip knot to the iron ring on the wall himself. “Do you think you could possibly brush him all right?” he asked.
Callie nodded, wishing she were small enough to crawl in with the brushes. Cloud turned his head and nuzzled her bare arm with the velvety tip of his nose, and Callie scratched him, feeling that she had at least one friend in the barn.
The horses were still shedding into their full summer coats. Callie rubbed some hair off her nose with the back of her hand. Jeff brought a black wool-felt saddle blanket. He tossed it up and adjusted it. He came back with a western saddle and handed it to Callie. “Here. Throw this up, and I’ll show you how to cinch it.”
The saddle was heavy, and instead of swinging it easily through the air like the movie cowboys, Callie felt her arms begin to stretch toward the ground. She inhaled and tensed her muscles. The saddle inched upward, thudded into Cloud’s ribs before it reached his back, and sank toward the floor, pulling Callie with it. Jeff took the saddle brusquely from Callie and swung it onto the horse. He tried to make it look simple, but Callie heard a grunt escape him.
Jeff quickly adjusted the cinch and latigo, making sure nothing was twisted. He explained rapidly as he worked. Callie didn’t dare to ask any questions, but tried to absorb as much as she could. Lastly, Jeff showed Callie the toothless spot at the comer of the horse’s mouth. When he put his fingers there, Cloud opened his mouth, and Jeff slid in the bit.