By Patty Wilber
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CALLIE’S STAR by Patty Wilber
Everyone was mounted and gathered around Uncle Bob as he unfolded a piece of paper and read off names. He broke them into four parties. Mr. Sanchez, one of the storytellers from last night, headed up one group. Mr.Romero, Luis’s dad, had another and Ms. McCabe led the third.
“Where’s she from?” Callie whispered to Luis.
“She runs the Triple A Quarter Horse ranch,” he replied and Callie nodded. She knew of the Triple A because Uncle Bob sometimes did business there.
Uncle Bob’s voice broke into their conversation, “And I’ll take the fourth group. Jeff, Callie, Luis, and Roberto Sanchez’s son Rick, will go with me.”
“Where are we headed?” Callie asked.
“See that hill over there?” Rick said, pointing westward. “We’ll start near there.”
Callie felt her heart thump, and the butterflies in her stomach batted their wings wildly. That was near where Luis had seen the Outlaw and his mares yesterday.
“That’s where we’re going?” she asked, wanting to be positive. “Yep,” replied Rick.
“Yee haw!” yodeled Luis, waving his hat and causing Flower to bug out her eyes. “We’re going to bring in the Outlaw!”
Callie felt a thrill run up her spine at the mention of his name, and could see the horse, his black hide gleaming, and his nostrils extended, searching the air for unfamiliar scents. Today could be the day she saw the Outlaw up close! Goosebumps rose on her arms. She rubbed them with one hand, and suddenly thought of Cloud, left all alone at the ranch. She felt both happy and sad; he was her special horse, but he was missing the excitement. “I’ll just have to be extra nice when we get home,” she said to herself, ”with or without the Outlaw.”
Callie’s eyes came back into focus on Flower’s ears, which swiveled back and forth, listening to the voices and sounds around her.
“How long a ride to the hill?” asked Jeff.
“About forty-five minutes to the top,” said Uncle Bob.
“Outlaw, here we come!” said Luis
“We won’t be going to the top, though,” said Uncle Bob. “We’re going to go through a canyon along the side. It opens into meadow.”
“Maybe they’ll be there,” said Rick, winking at no one in particular. He had voiced what they were all thinking.
The sides of the small canyon rose steeply and the sandy path narrowed. Trees clung to tiny pockets of soil on the cliff face, and their roots decorated the walls in thick ropes. Callie could see the shiny glitter of fool’s gold mixed into the pale sand, and it made her think of sun glinting off the sleek horses she hoped were waiting in the valley up ahead.
Suddenly, Flower stopped, and Jeff turned to Callie and whispered, “We’re there!”
Callie brushed away a stray piece of wind-blown hair from her face and said, “So soon?”
“We’ve been riding for nearly an hour!” Rick said from behind her.
Jeff stood in his stirrups and strained to see up ahead, then he bent forward to listen to Luis. He nodded, then turned to Callie and Rick. “We can’t see any horses yet, but we’re going to move into the trees around the meadow, and come in from the back, so if they are there, they’ll head straight into the ravine.”
Callie’s right hand kept time to Jeff’s words by tapping on her saddle horn, and her eyes were as wide as emerald pools in a stream.
They headed into the dense underbrush. Twigs snapped and branches snagged the riders as they made their way slowly among the trees. They were anything but quiet, and Callie was glad that a blue and black Stellar’s jay was squawking loud enough to be a one bird riot, somewhere in the trees near them. She glanced up into the piney canopy, but could not spot the raucous bird. Then she tried to peer between the crowded trees to find the meadow and the black form of the Outlaw. Her heart beat harder with each step they took, but she could only see glimpses of the grassy opening through the trees.
Finally, the view grew less and less obstructed until the last tall ponderosa stood behind them like a lone sentry, and the meadow lay before them. It was as empty as a cookie jar at the end of the week.
No one spoke. They just stared at the emptiness in front of them as if none of them could quite believe their bad luck. Finally, Rick said, “Let’s not sit here looking like there’s no manaña! Let’s go find some hoof prints!”
Callie saw him glance at Uncle Bob, who nodded slightly, giving the go-ahead.
Callie felt her hopes rekindle. She patted Flower and tugged at the horse’s mane.
Luis and Jeff spurred their horses, and were racing into the middle of the meadow when Rick said, “Wait!”
The two boys pulled their mounts up short, and looked at Rick, questions hanging unasked in their open mouths.
“We’ve got to go quietly,” he said, “Because the herd may be up any one of these little draws that ring this valley.”
Jeff and Luis looked slightly ashamed at their outburst, and Callie was thankful she’d been too slow to join them.
They spread across the grass, scanning the earth for tracks. Uncle Bob reached some bare ground and halted Pitch. “They were here all right,” he said, pointing to prints and a dusty depression where a horse had rolled. He studied the sign for a minute, and then said, “I bet they went that way.” He nodded his chin toward a narrow draw.
“That’d be my best guess, too,” agreed Rick. “Let’s go find ’em!”
They halted at the entrance to the little draw, and Uncle Bob dismounted to examine the ground. “Yep,” he said, tracing a print with his finger. “This is a mighty fresh track. They may be in here.”
Callie looked at the ground and could see many tracks on the soil beneath her, but they looked neither old nor new to her. “How can you tell?” she asked.
“These tracks have fairly sharp outlines,” he said, pointing to several clear marks on the ground. “Since this is dry soil, the breeze will quickly smudge older prints.”
Callie’s heart began to beat against her chest, and her breath was stuck in her throat. The Outlaw might be right up the draw!
Uncle Bob swung up onto Pitch. “We’ve got to move carefully. We’ll want to drive the horses down the ravine we came in, so we’ll need some hazers to stay out here and make sure the herd doesn’t bolt out the wrong way. Any volunteers?” No one except Rick met his gaze. Callie saw Uncle Bob look at Rick as if to say, “What now?”
Rick said, “It looks like we’ll have to pick numbers.” He faced the little group. “Pick between one and ten, and the closest will go with Bob. The other two will stay with me.” He nodded at Callie. “You first,” he said.
Her throat was tight and she said, “Eight.”
“Five,” said Jeff, letting the number roll slowly out of his mouth.
“Two,” said Luis.
“The number was three.”
Luis’s face broke into a grin that was a mile wide, and he followed Uncle Bob into the draw.
Callie watched as they rode away. “What a luck out,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Jeff, glumly.
“C’mon, you two! If the herd is there, they’ll be bringing the bunch down, PDQ,” said Rick.
“PDQ?” asked Callie, wrinkling her nose.
“You know, pretty darn quick,” said Jeff, wrinkling his face back at her.
“Right,” said Rick. He mimicked Callie and Jeff by scrunching up his nose and rolling his eyes first one way and then the other. Callie had to hold her breath to keep from letting out a howl of laughter, and tried to say, “Oh,” in a serious way. But Jeff poked her in the ribs and imitated Rick.
All three of them cracked up.
“Let’s go,” said Rick, finally regaining his composure. “We’d look pretty lame if we missed the horses because we were fooling around! Jeff, you take this end. Callie, you take the middle, and I’ll take the far side. All we have to do is keep the horses from breaking through the line, so Jeff, if they come out, ride alongside, and Callie, you do the same as they reach your spot. When they reach me, I’ll turn them down the ravine.”
He looked from Callie to Jeff, and they both said, “Right.”
Flower pricked her ears forward and arched her neck. She let out a shrill whinny and stamped her foot. Callie tightened her grip on the reins, and Rick pointed and mouthed, “I hear them coming!”
Callie strained her ears and heard a muffled clattering coming from the mouth of the draw.
“Let’s MOVE!” said Rick.
Jeff trotted the few feet to his post, while Callie and Rick galloped to theirs. Callie halted Flower and tried to quiet the horse, but Callie’s own nervousness was flowing into the mare like electricity along a wire, and the horse pranced and mouthed the bit.
The sound of hooves grew from a faint clatter, louder and more distinct, until Callie could hear it from where she stood in the middle of the little clearing. She could see wisps of dust rising like smoke from the draw, and the drumming the hooves echoed against its cliffs.
Suddenly, a dark horse burst from the shadow of the ravine. When it saw Jeff, it tried to swerve past him so instead of coming up alongside of Callie, it was headed straight for her, and the open meadow beyond. It was four leaps ahead of a clot of running animals that flowed like a flash flood. They too swerved as they flew past Jeff, and followed the dark horse in a thundering flood toward Callie. Her breath caught in her throat at the beauty of the horse. The sunlight danced on its coat, its mane flung itself about like a hundred tiny whips. Callie’s breath rushed out again, when she realized it was not pure black, but instead a dark bay. Clumps of sod flew from the ground as the horse approached, and showered on the following herd in a rain of soil and roots.
Callie saw Jeff spur Punkin into action alongside the charging mob, and dust boiled up behind him. From somewhere in the tan cloud, Callie could hear Luis and Uncle Bob shouting to each other. They were sounds without bodies.
The lead horse was almost upon Callie, and Flower snorted and danced in place. She didn’t try to bolt, and Callie was grateful for that. She spoke softly to the mare until the bay horse was within thirty feet of them, and charging head on. The herd had gained on her. Callie sucked in her breath, urged Flower forward and yelled at the horses, “TURN! TURN!”
She waved her right arm wildly and shouted again, so loudly that she thought her lungs would burst.
The eyes of the bay horse, already white-rimmed, bulged when they saw the waving arm and heard the deafening screech of Callie’s voice. The horse leapt to the right, away from Callie, like a cat startled by something directly beneath it, almost without breaking stride. Callie could feel the breeze in the horse’s wake, but she didn’t watch it go. The others were much too near, and closing like a tidal wave about to hurtle past Callie and disappear with a puff of hoof churned dust, into the dream they had been all summer.
Tears of frustration made a mist in Callie’s eyes. She could smell their sweet, grassy breath, and the dusty, salty tang of sweat. They were in front of her and coming hard.
Flower was a tight mass of spring-loaded muscle dancing in tight half circles as they come on and Flower, held to one spot by Callie’s insistent hands, reared. Callie leaned up onto the mare’s neck, and saw the herd, only feet away, nearly under the mare. She gathered every ounce of energy in her body into a single wild yell, and threw it into the face of the nearest horse, spraying her with sound.
Callie saw the sunlight shine on the long arcing muscle of its neck as the horse strained to avoid the horrible noise. The horse turned, pushing shoulder to shoulder against the nearest animal, knocking it off stride, and forcing it to turn, also. This horse blocked a neighbor, and its tail whipped a follower in the face.
Flower’s feet hit the ground with a sharp jerk that ran up Callie’s spine, and into her neck, but there were no horses beneath them. They were pushing, nose against neck, hip against hip, in a wide curve, following the first mare, like the parabola of a rainbow, and were headed for the ravine.
Callie touched Flower with her heels, and galloped alongside the herd, barely able to believe what had just happened.
Rick galloped in from his spot to left of her and was ahead of her keeping the herd pushing toward the ravine and Jeff closed in the from the right. Uncle Bob and Luis were coming out of the little draw and drew along side
“Where’s the Outlaw?” Callie shouted.
“Got away,” was Luis’s curt reply.
A screaming neigh pierced through the rumble of pounding hooves, and bounced off the walls of the valley, surrounding them. Callie caught a bare glimpse of a horse as black as a deep shadow galloping back and forth along the rim of the valley. As he reached one edge, he planted his hind hooves under himself, and slid to a stop. Then he whirled on his haunches and thundered back the other way, throwing his jet black head, and uttering his terrible neigh.
A picture of that long ago round-up flashed into Callie’s mind, and she knew this sound she heard was the same note of defiance, tinged with hopeless despair, that the original Outlaw had cried. She looked at him again, and the sight and sound of him tearing back and forth along the rim, made something in Callie float free with him. He did not belong in the frightened group that moved beside her. At the same time, the despair in his call was so deep, that Callie almost wanted to pull Flower to a halt, and let the herd go to him. She looked at the tight bunch of horses ahead of her, and once more back at the stallion.
He paused for a moment and looked like a statue, poised on the brink of the valley, head high, and he watched them go.
P.S. The wedding in Alaska was amazing and I hardly have any photos of it as I was busy being the mother of the groom and all, but here is a shot from the rehearsal, so you can see the amazing venue! Also, my college classes start Monday and I am NOT quite ready!