By Patty Wilber
To get every chapter as soon as they post, you can subscribe to the site! If you missed any of the past Chapters, the links are all here. Thanks for reading!
CALLIE’S STAR by Patty Wilber
CHAPTER ELEVEN – NO WATER
They were climbing up an east facing slope. The sun had burned away any tiny droplets of dew that had condensed overnight. The rays, bouncing back and forth among the red cliffs and boulders created a still heat that was oven-like. The dust kicked up by the horses hung in the air and climbed thickly into Callie’s nose. The plants gave off dry aromatic scents, as if offering their last precious oils in return for the sun’s mercy.
Callie was thankful she had grabbed a baseball cap off the hat rack before they’d left. She had taken the liner out of her helmet and put in the cap. The wide brim, pulled low onto her forehead, kept the sharpest rays out of her eyes, and shaded her nose. She touched the jug that hung on the saddle and wondered how long it would be until the water it contained boiled over like the radiator of an overheated car.
Ahead of her, Callie saw Jeff half hidden in the hot dust rising from the ground. He turned in his saddle. “The creek should be just around the comer,” he said. “We ought to stop there and let the horses rest and drink.”
Jake’s tongue lolled at the comer of his mouth and when he heard the word drink, he wagged his tail and ran it ran once around his silvery muzzle. He was a young dog and the heat didn’t seem to bother him much.
“I need a drink, too,” said Callie. Her sweat was evaporating as soon as it hit the air and the skin on her face felt like thin paper stretched across her cheekbones. “And look at Cloud.” She pointed to the sweat darkened patches on his hide. “It is like a desert out here.”
“It IS a desert out here,” Jeff pointed out. “High desert, but still.”
In the late afternoon, when we come down, it’ll probably be cooler since the sun will be behind the ridge,” said Luis.
“That’ll be a relief,” said Jose. “I’d hate to die of thirst out here.” He paused, listening to the dry rattle of grasshoppers hidden in the rocks, and then added, “I’d hate to die at all, wouldn’t you, Callie?”
Callie swallowed hard and nodded. An image of her mother floated into her mind like a mirage. She was sitting on the hard vinyl covered hospital chair that made a hollow scrape on the green linoleum floor whenever she shifted her weight. She leaned forward in that chair, her hand in the palm of her mother’s white and vein lined one, asking, “Why? Why do you have to die?”
Her mother’s eyes had seemed to sink somewhere back into the hollows of her face, and her thin lips had crooked up at the comers, as if trying to smile in a reassuring way. The pale hand tightened on Callie’s, and her mother said, “Everyone has to die sometime, Cal, and my time is now.” She squeezed Callie’s hand harder and the two sat in silence, Callie looking at the dark shadows in the folds of the tan blanket.
Your mother died, didn’t she?” asked Jose.
Callie heard his voice in the hospital room, and her mother’s image faded into the beige of trail dust.
“Yes,” she said, shuddering.
“What’d she die of?”
“Jose!” said Luis, his voice sharp.
“A brain tumor,” said Callie. She fingered the leather ties on the front of her saddle, bending them back and forth. “I always thought she’d get better, but…” Callie paused. “But she died.” Callie rubbed one hand across her eyes, and shrugged, as if trying to displace the despair that had settled on her shoulders.
“Don’t you have a dad?”
“JOSE!” said Luis again.
“What?” said Jose.
“I guess,” said Callie, “But he left when I was a baby.” In her mind there was nothing for this man she had never known.
“JOSE!!” said Luis for the third time. He gave his little brother a shut up NOW look, and Jose opened his mouth so that it formed a little “O”, and he nodded.
“The creek is in that stand of spruce,” said Jeff, glad he had a way to change the topic of conversation.
“Good,” said Callie, sighing. A grasshopper whirred into the air near her, showing its red and yellow wing linings, and then landed on Cloud’s mane. Callie tried to brush it off, but it clung with its spiky legs like a dead leaf refusing to leave its tree in the autumn. Finally, Callie flicked it with her forefinger, and it fell onto a striped red boulder rock, with a scratchy “Cro-ach”.
They were at the trees now, and they threaded through them. The creek bed was very near, but they could see no flash of silver in the sunlight, nor hear the comforting gurgle of water flowing down hill. Callie rode up to the bank and looked in. She saw damp sand speckled with tiny flakes of fool’s gold, but no water.
“It’s dry,” she said. A great emptiness filled her.
A wind fluttered the tree branches, letting a spear of light shoot through to land on Callie’s cheek like a hot knife.
“What now?” she asked. Her voice was flat, and she rubbed the back of her neck, flicking her hair up to let the breeze dry the dampness gathered there.
“We dig,” said Jeff, getting off Punkin. He took off his helmet and said, “I hate this thing!”, then stepped down into the dry creek bed and bent over, tracing patterns in the sand with his fingers. “It’s plenty damp,” he said. “Water can’t be too far.”
“It’ll be like digging for treasure!” said Jose, suddenly inspired.
“Liquid gold,” said Callie. Her voice was still flat, but an inch of something had seeped into her, filling a bit of the void.
Luis tied his horse to a tree and joined Jeff, who had already started a small hole with his hands. “It’s getting wetter,” he said, “And it’s cold.”
Luis pulled out a scoop. “It is cold!” he said. Then “Look!” He pointed into the hole. “There’s water!
“Where?” asked Jose, peering over Jeff’s shoulder. “Right there!” said Jeff. “Dig!”
They dug steadily for fifteen minutes without speaking. The hole spread until it was three feet across and nearly two feet down into the glittering sand. Clear water oozed up from the bottom, making a pool about six inches deep.
“Alright!” said Jeff, scooping water into his hands and over his head so the cool liquid streamed down his face. The others splashed the water over their arms and faces, cleaning off the sand and the powdery trail dust. Finally, Callie stood, and said, “I think the horses deserve a drink, and I know l could use one.
She led Cloud to the hole. His big feet collapsed one wall and he thrust his white muzzle into the water, slurping it like a greedy diner drinking soup from a bowl. When he finished, he looked at Callie, and rubbed his wet face along her arm, leaving a grimy streak. Callie didn’t care. They’d found water, and besides, it felt cool against her hot skin.
When the horses had finished drinking, Jake hopped into the depression and lay down with a sigh. He set his chin on the sandy edge of the pool and closed his eyes.
They lounged in the shade of the trees, drinking water from the jugs, and munching M&M’s and raisins. After about 20 minutes, they continued up the ridge. It wasn’t more than an hour to the top, and the next section of trail wound into a thick blanket of aspen and spruce that blocked out the sun and kept the trail cooler. Callie heard a few birds chirping somewhere high in the branches, and one sounded like a flutist playing a thin song that seemed to float on the air. Callie thought it sounded beautiful, but sort of sad and lonely.
“What kind of bird is that?” she asked.
“A flycatcher, I think,” said Luis, “But I’m not sure.” Then he pointed up the trail. They were about to head onto another unshaded stretch. “That’s the last bit before the top,” he said.
Callie strained to look around Luis and Jeff, but could see only a few flashes of sun until she and Cloud emerged from under the canopy of trees. A quick breeze cantered across this section of the trail, rolling down from the top of the ridge which lay only a few hundred feet above them. The wind seemed to sweep the heat before it and away from the riders. Callie wanted to take off her helmet and let the air massage her scalp and cool her head, but she didn’t dare. They were almost to the summit.
“You can see the lake from up there,” said Jose. “We went to it once, to fish. It’s called Paw Lake, and it looks like a paw, kind of.”
When they reached the top, and they all dismounted near an old pine that was stunted from years of growth on the exposed, windy ridge. A series of high mountain peaks with lingering patches of snow stretched out to the east and Paw lake glittered like an aquamarine jewel below them. Callie could imagine stretching her arm down into it as easily as if she were standing on its banks. It looked so blue and close.
The emptiness that had engulfed Callie at the creek was lifted away by the wonder of life around her. She felt ten different feelings at once: a oneness with something much greater than herself, an amazement at the beauty of the tiny lake and the gnarled, stunted pine bent and twisted by snow and wind, yet still full of vigorous life. Callie felt as if she would burst, taking in all these things, and becoming them in a little part of herself.
She looked at Luis, Jose, and Jeff, and saw that they too were lost in worlds of their own; far off on a distant mountainside, or down on the sheltered banks of the lake, toes dangling in the icy snow melt. They stood quietly, alone, and yet together, until Jose’s stomach broke into all of their thoughts by rumbling loudly.
“I think I’m hungry,” he said.
His stomach seemed to give cues to everyone else, and Callie felt hers grumble quietly. Jeff patted his gut and said, “Me too.”
“It’s twelve-thirty,” said Luis.
“Then let’s eat!”
“If we go along the ridge a little ways, there is a grassy spot off to one side where the horses can get a few mouthfuls, too,” said Jeff. He swung up on Punkin and the others followed, letting the horses pick their own way over the rocky ground.
Callie unsaddled Cloud, and hobbled his front legs so he could graze, but not wander far. Then she sank into the grass and began munching on a peanut butter and blackberry jam sandwich. Jeff pulled out cheese. He said peanut butter made his teeth feel like they’d been coated with glue.
“So Callie,” said Luis, chewing on piece of beef jerky, “What’d Uncle Bob say about the round-up?”
Callie flushed and glanced at Jeff. “I haven’t asked him yet.”
“But it’s almost here!” said Jose.
“I know,” said Callie, “But the right time hasn’t come up. Maybe tonight…” Her voice trailed off.
“Good idea,” said Jose, and then switching gears seemlessly said, “Hey Callie, can I have a drink of your water?”
“O.K.,” said Callie, “But there’s not a ton left.”
“Ay! Jose!” said Luis. “I can’t believe you drank all your water!”
“The top fell off,” said Jose.
“It was an accident.” Jose’s voice had a slight whine of defensiveness. “I guess Sass rubbed it against a tree or something,” He said as he carefully opened Callie’s jug.
“Don’t worry,” said Callie. “There’s plenty of water left between the three of us.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Jeff, shaking his water jug. It looked very light in his hands, and sounded like there was little water and lots of room to splash. “I gave some to Jake,” he explained.
“I brought two,” said Luis. “Just in case.”
“So, no problem,” said Callie, smiling at Luis. “At least some one around here’s got brains.” She dug an apple out of her lunch bag and sank her teeth into it. It made a watery crunch, and a drop of juice gathered at the comer of her mouth. She licked it off, and when she was down to the core, she got up and walked toward Cloud. She offered him the apple. He sniffed at it, and then picked it gently off her hand. She patted him, and pressed her forehead against his neck. It was stiff with dried sweat and dust. She scratched his neck, getting fingernails full of gray-brown grime. “You are going to need a good rinse when we get home,” she told him. Cloud closed his eyes and sighed, as if imagining the bath.
They paused on the way down to gaze once more at the panorama spread before them, and then started across the windswept rocks and into the shady tree-covered trail. It was pleasant riding through the trees. The horses didn’t pant or sweat since they were headed downhill, and when they arrived at the creek bed, they paused only long enough to deepen the depression so the horses could get their fill, again. Jake plopped down in it once or twice, drinking as he lay there.
Then they headed onto the section of trail that had been so hot in the morning. It lay in such a way that little cooling breeze crossed its stones. The shadows were longer, but the rocks seemed to radiate the heat they had absorbed all day.
“I thought you said this would be cooler, Luis,” said Jose.
Luis shrugged. “Can’t win ’em all,” he said. “But it is a little cooler.”
“At least the sun’s not frying us like eggs on a griddle anymore,” Said Callie.
“Right,” said Jeff. “Now we’re on slow cook.”
Luis made a face at Jeff from under his hat. “Excuse me,” he said, “For being wrong.”
“This time only,” said Callie. “And just for that, you have to close both gates when we get to the pasture. Bessie’ll be waiting!”
“O.K.,” said Luis, “But only if you can open them without getting off.”
“It’s a deal,” said Callie, wondering if she could do it. If she failed, she had a strange feeling that she would be closing the gates.
She has closed gates on horseback before, but now the pressure was on.
When they got there, she rode up to the gate, and positioned Cloud against it. She unlatched it, and moved him sideways, the gate still in hand. Then she pushed it hard so that it swung against the fence. “There,” she said to Luis. “It’s all yours.”
“Watch out for Bessie,” said Jeff, “‘Cause here she comes!”
They all looked across the field at the cattle. They stood, heads raised, looking at the open gate, and one began to move. One took a step, then another took a step. And another. Soon they were all marching briskly toward the gate, like some sort of inspection party.
“Rats,” said Luis, hopping off his horse and swinging the gate shut before the cattle could reach him. By the time he had remounted, they were closing in, and all four riders laughed and galloped for the opposite gate.
Callie didn’t even bother to try to stay on Cloud. She swung off as soon as she could rein him to a halt, and pushed open the gate. The boys came through, and Luis made a move as if to dismount, but Callie shook her head. The cattle had followed them again, and Callie wanted the gate shut long before they got near, so she latched it herself, and climbed back on her horse.
“What a bunch of pests!” she said.
When they reached the ranch house, Luis and Josetrotted down the driveway toward their place. “Hasta la vista! See you later,” Callie and Jeff called, and Jake barked once, as if saying his own farewell.
Jeff and Callie rode in silence to the barn. Callie was thinking about the day, and she felt contented and confident. She had avoided ‘0l Bessie not once, but twice, dug for water, and looked down on the world from the ridge. She touched the empty jug, and then reached behind the saddle to scratch Cloud’s dust caked rump.
“Bath time,” she told him when they reached the barn, sounding like a mother talking to a very dirty child. She untacked him and hosed him until the water ran clear even when she rubbed his hair with her hand. Then, using a flat blade-like tool called a sweat scraper, she pulled the excess water from his coat. Finally, she massaged his tired legs. She tied him to a ring in the barn and gave him a can of crimped oats.
“Callie,” Jeff called. “Com’ere a minute, will you?”
Callie followed Jeff’s voice outside. The hose was completely outstretched, and Jeff held the end in his right hand. In his left hand, he held the end of Punkin’s lead line, and Punkin was as far away as possible from the spray nozzle.
“I’m trying to rinse him,” said Jeff, “But he’s not cooperating.” He handed the hose to Callie and approached the horse. “It’s not going to kill you,” he said.
He walked Punkin close to the spigot and motioned to Callie. “You spray him and I’ll hold him.”
Callie nodded and squeezed the spray nozzle arm. Water gurgled, shot out the end like a geyser, and splashed against Punkin. Punkin leapt away and looked at Callie as if she were a witch.
“Geez!” said Jeff, bringing Punkin back into position and patting him. “Try the mist!”
“Sorry,” said Callie, and adjusted the setting. This time when she depressed the arm, the water broke into a fan-like spray, and showered onto the horse. Jeff held him steady, and Punkin shivered at the first wetting, but then seemed to begin to enjoy the feeling of the water as it loosened the sweat and dirt that clung to him.
“Thanks,” said Jeff. “I think he will stand for me now.” He took the hose from Callie.
She went inside to get Cloud and tum him loose in the corral
He was still damp, but had finished his oats, and stood, head low, with his white eyelids drooped over his brown eyes. Jake was sprawled out on his side along the wall not far from the horse with his eyes closed. Hisfeet twitched ever so slightly and Callie knew he was a dreaming.
“Cloud,” said Callie softly, as she approached the horse. “Time to go out.” He opened his eyes, but did not raise his head. Callie rubbed his face and untied him. He followed her out of the barn, hooves clomping on the hard packed earth. She led him to the corral and slid the halter off. He rubbed his head on his front leg, rubbing the spots that had been covered with leather or nylon all day. Then he walked a few steps and paused. Callie walked to the gate, and turned to look one last time at her horse before she went to the house. Cloud was on his side wriggling his body into the dust and making little happy sounds. Then he rolled onto his stomach, raised himself up on his front legs, grunting, and heaved up his hindquarters with his back legs. He hung his head down, and shook his whole body, sending a rain of dirt flying from his soil coated hide.
“And I just cleaned you!” said Callie. She turned to go out just a Jeff was bringing in Punkin. She held the gate for them.
Jeff turned his horse loose, and Punkin went to the spot Cloud had just vacated, and sniffed and snuffled at the dirt, blowing up little clouds. Then he plopped onto his side with a grunt and a sigh and then rolled completely over to get the other side.
“Wouldn’t you know it!” said Jeff.
Callie pointed to Cloud, half black and half white. They both laughed. “I guess they like dirt,” Jeff said, shrugging.
Callie was picking at her dinner and Aunt Martha asked “Are the green chile enchiladas too hot?”
Callie said, “No. They are great.” They were good and she really liked green chile now. But, she had to ask about the round-up, tonight, and her stomach was knotted with nervousness. She kept picking and just listened as the conversation, like a tumbleweed before the wind, drifted from one topic to another. Finally, inevitably, it rolled around to the round-up.
“Is the date set yet, Dad?” asked Jeff, even though he knew perfectly well that it was.
“Two weeks from Friday! If this weather cools a little like it is supposed to, we ought to have a great time!”
“That soon?” asked Jeff, looking at Callie.
She drew in a breath. “A week from Friday is a week after my birthday,” said Callie. Her lips felt tight, but she tried to look calm and grown-up as she looked at Uncle Bob. “I’ll be thirteen,” she said.
Uncle Bob nodded and there was a brief moment of silence that Aunt Martha broke before it got too strained.
“What would you like for your birthday, Callie?”
“I’d just like to go on the round-up.” The words simply fell out of her mouth like stones. Her face went from tight to hot. She looked at Aunt Martha and then at Uncle Bob. Martha half smiled at her with a gentle, concerned expression. Uncle Bob pushed at the enchiladas on his plate with his fork and cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said, looking up and using a deep even tone that made disappointment gather around Callie like dark clouds in a summer sky. “I know you’ve been riding every day … ”
“And she’s gotten good, actually,” broke in Jeff.
Callie smiled at Jeff gratefully, and then turned back to Uncle Bob, who continued. “I realize that Jeff, but this round-up is no picnic.”
Callie nodded. She felt her vision blurring. A shriveled shred of hope still lived inside her.
He hadn’t said ”No,” yet.
“I will be … “ her voice cracked. She drew in a breath and made herself look steadily at her Uncle. “I will be thirteen,” she repeated. Her voice almost sounded matter-of-fact.
“I know,” said Uncle Bob. He carefully stabbed a piece. “If you’d been ranch raised, there’d be no question, but you just don’t have the background or the experience that comes from living all your life out here.” His clear blue eyes looked into her green ones, and she nodded again, afraid that speech would dislodge the lump in her throat that contained tears.
The shred of hope was dead.
She swallowed hard, and looking at her plate, was desperate to be excused. Aunt Martha patted her hand and made a little “go head” motion with her hand.
Callie pushed her chair from the table. It felt awkward, and the chair scraped loudly against the linoleum. It seemed to take forever to climb the stairs to her room. She wasn’t angry, she told herself. Uncle Bob always did what he thought was best. She looked out the window toward the white-fenced corral, and through the haze of her watery eyes, she saw Cloud.
“We could do it, couldn’t we, old boy?”
She threw herself on the bed. The mare and foal on the wall were lit by the warm orange evening light, but Callie didn’t see it, because her face was buried in her pillow.