By Patty Wilber
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CALLIE’S STAR by Patty Wilber
CHAPTER TEN-ON THE WAY TO THE RIDGE
Callie shivered with excitement. Today was the ride to the ridge, and only one week until her birthday, AND then the round-up. The round-up had come up, but her going had not, and she hadn’t summoned enough courage to ask. Maybe tonight, but first, the Ride to The Ridge, capitalized, in her mind.
She felt like an explorer at the start of an important expedition. Perhaps they would discover the Outlaw in a secret valley!
Callie pulled a blue plaid shirt out of the closet and went to the old oak dresser to get a pair of jeans. She paused to study the picture of the mare and colt on the dresser and then the one on the wall. Hers was a little more worn. She used to run her finger over the horses, as if she were grooming them. Her mother saw her one evening and Callie had said, “I wish they were mine!”
Her mother had said, “There is no place to keep them, and horse pictures are much safer.”
“One day,“ Callie had declared, “I will have my own!”
“Just be careful.” Her mother had replied.
“I will,” said Callie, out loud, back to the present. “I have been.” She reached out and touched picture then snapped the white pearled buttons on her blue plaid shirt and stepped into her jeans.
Jeff was bridling Punkin and Callie was tightening Cloud’s cinch when she glanced up at the clock on the barn wall. “It’s almost six-thirty, Jeff. Jose and Luis are supposed to be here in fifteen minutes.”
“As soon as I fill up the water jugs, we will be ready!” he said, giving her a thumbs up.
Jeff picked up two plastic gallon jugs that once held pancake syrup and led Punkin outside to the spigot.
Callie could hear the water gurgling into the narrow mouth of one and the hollow sound grew deeper then sounded splashy as water overflowed into the mud around the faucet. Jeff screwed the cap on tightly, and filled the other one. He tied one to his saddle and handed the other to Callie, so she could do the same.
“Hiya!” called Luis, appearing in the barn door. Jake trotted out to greet him. “Morning,” drawled Jeff as he swung up on Punkin. “Y’all ready to hit the dusty trail?”
“You bet,” said Luis. “Got your water? Looks like it’s going to be a hot one.”
“Right here,” said Callie, patting the heavy, damp jug that hung on her saddle.
“Well then, let’s go!” said Jeff heading out of the barn.
“I wonder if we’ll see Los Caballos”, said Jose emphasizing the “Los Caballos” in his most dramatic voice.
“Doubt it,” said Luis. “They hang out in the valleys, not on the ridges.”
“But if we did,” persisted Jose, “It would be like the round-up!”
“Dream on!” said Callie, but like Jose, she could picture it perfectly.
They dropped into single file, led by Jeff. Jake was cutting back and forth across the trail sniffing the jack rabbit tracks made during the night. His plumed tail wagged happily.
“We’ll head out through Ridge Pasture, and then up onto the ridge,” said Jeff as he urged Punkin into a brisk mile-eating walk. Cloud was a slower walker, and Callie ended up pulling rear duty which meant she had to close the gates in the Ridge Pasture. It was still filled with cattle.
As they approached, Callie was relieved to see that all the cattle grazing placidly, far from the gates. Jeff went in, followed by Jose and Luis. The cattle looked up.
Callie gripped the gate with one hand and tried to maneuver Cloud sideways so she could latch the gate without dismounting, but Cloud fidgeted and looked around. He moved away from the gate, and Callie leaned as far out of the saddle as she dared, trying to hold on. She tried to move Cloud in close again, but he took another step away and she lost the gate. It swung all the way to the other side of the fence, and Callie had to ride out of the pasture to get it. She closed her fingers around the top rail, and got Cloud to move slowly sideways toward the opening in the fence.
He was almost there, when all of a sudden, he humped his back, and a big, black horsefly buzzed off his rump and around his face. He ducked his head violently, and Callie let go of the gate to grab the saddle horn for a quick balance check. Then she tried to wave away the insect.
A horsefly had bitten Callie on the arm once, and had drawn blood. Ever since, she had great sympathy for Cloud’s panicked reaction to them. This was a very persistent fly and it kept circling Cloud, despite her attempts at shooing it off. So, she decided to wait for it to land and then try to smack it before it bit her horse.
She sat very still, and since the fly was now behind them, Cloud, too, was motionless. The big black insect with its gray wings took one last circling flight, then made a landing run, settling once again on Cloud’s rump. The horse’s skin twitched, and he stamped one foot. Callie made a quick swat, hoping to catch the slow moving insect off guard. She hit the fly and Cloud at nearly the same time, causing Cloud to jump a little to the left, away from the gate. The fly tumbled off his rump, dead. Callie gripped the saddle with her knees and rubbed his rump where she had smacked him and the bug, “Easy boy. It was just a fly.”
Cloud’s big ears swiveled around at the sound of the girl’s voice, and Callie reined him once again toward the gate. Callie glanced at the others, and noticed they were nearly all the way across the pasture. She slid off Cloud, and swung the troublesome gate shut. Then she remounted, ready to gallop after the others. All at once, she noticed that the cattle, who were allergic to gates last week, today found this one very interesting. Callie could count ten. As her eyes passed over them, one by one they moved until they stood, a black Angus road block, between her and the boys. She felt needle sharp stabs of unease prodding and kneading her stomach. At least the gate was shut and she had secured the latch. She sat without moving for a minute, and the cattle, seeming to sense her indecision, proved they were not so cautious. Like a living wall, they advanced, narrowing the spaces between themselves and reducing her chances of a simple escape.
Callie drew a deep breath and suppressed the urge to close her eyes, kick Cloud into a charging gallop, and hope he would see her through. Instead, she tapped his ribs, and they started into an easy walk, headed for the living, breathing, sea of cattle. If only they would simply part.
But they did not. They we still coming. Their dark lips hung a little apart, speckled with the green foam of chewed and rechewed grass. Cloud pricked his ears forward and lowered his head so his teeth were level with the beefy backs of the cattle. Like yarn, he threaded himself between the first several cows, bending his body in graceful undulations, and avoiding any contact. Suddenly, they were blocked by the old renegade cow. Her head seemed as massive as that of a bison, and her coat was snagged with old scars and tiny cattle flies. Callie felt the muscles in her legs contract, and her lungs ached from holding her breath. But Cloud never even paused. He bared his long yellow teeth and bit the old cow squarely on the shoulder, causing her to jump away, eyes popped wide, and tail waving like an old rope in the wind.
That was the last of them, and Callie could see the boys at the far gate. She gripped her heels into Cloud’s sides, and leaned forward on his neck. “Get up, Cloud,” she said.
Cloud broke into his easy lope, but the water jug tied to the saddle was bouncing heavily into Cloud’s side with every stride. Callie reached back to hold it still, and she felt it begin to loosen. From the comer of her eye, she saw the big old cow lumbering after them like a fat woman chasing a thief. Callie’s ears were full of the too familiar, insidiously whispered words of the wind. She tightened her fingers around the bottle until she could feel the seam on the handle digging into her palm, and she kept Cloud at lope with her legs, but there was nothing she could about the wind, except ignore it.
She glanced behind her with a quick strain of her neck. The old cow, cloven hooves digging into the earth, was still pounding behind them. If the water jug fell, it might land right beneath those two-toed feet.
Callie knew the water was vital for their ride, especially on a day like today that would have dry heat that sucks up moisture like a sponge. The unease tumbling in her stomach condensed into a heavy brick, sharp on the comers, and immobile.
“Faster, Cloud, faster!” Callie breathed at her horse, barely able to choke out the words. “Faster!”
Cloud flicked his ears back toward her, and then flattened them down on his head. He tucked his rump up under himself, and stretched his neck parallel to the ground. Callie could feel a surprising surge of power and speed suddenly come alive under her, and after a few leaps, looked back over her shoulder again. The old cow had finally given up, and stood with her head down and her flanks heaving. Callie eased Cloud to a slower lope, and the tension in her stomach dispersed. Her heart was knocking on her ribs, but there was a smile on her face. “See?” she said to the wind. She could almost hear her mother sighing in relief. The breeze, still cool at this hour, ruffled her dark hair.
“Almost got munched by 0l’ Bessie, eh Cal?” said Luis.
”Not me! The water!” She held up the jug which had broken free, and then set it in front of her on the saddle. She turned to tie it to the other side of the saddle.
“And by the way,” she added, “Could someone else close this next gate?”