I hope Lizzie Platz keeps her mouth under a tight rein today,” I told my best friend, Serena, as the school bus rumbled down the road to school. “All she does is talk about her horse and what a great rider she is. If she’s half as good as she says, she’ll probably win most of the kids’ events in the rodeo.”
“Not if she’s riding against you, Chris,” Serena said. “You told me you won the barrel race last year, and came in second at calf roping.”
“Yup, but I was riding Belle then, and I can’t this year. Her foal will be born in January, so I can’t ride her in fast, rough events.”
Serena shook her head. “That’s too bad. Lizzie is such a show-off, waving around all those blue ribbons she won down in New Mexico. I felt sorry for her at first, because she’s new in school and I know how hard that is, but everyone in sixth grade thinks she’s a major pain.”
“I’d sure like to trim her down to size,” I said. “But without a good horse, I can’t win.”
“There must be one you can ride,” she said.
“We don’t have too many left. Dad sold some of them, and we shipped most of the others to the winter pasture last week.” During the summer, our busy season, we keep about seventy horses for our dude ranch guests, horse wranglers and cowhands, but in the fall and winter we only need a few.
“Maybe you could ride Dandy,” Serena suggested.
Dandy was a beautiful palomino Serena bought at an auction, but he turned out to be too wild for her to handle. She loved him, but she had to sell him to my dad.
“I’d like to, but I don’t know if Dad would let me,” I said. “Dandy still needs a lot of training, but gosh, he’s fast.”
“Plus, he’s beautiful.” Her face went all soft, just thinking about her golden palomino.
“Yup,” I agreed. “We could do real well, if only he wasn’t so wild.”
“You could try blowing into his nose,” she said. “Like you taught me.”
She was talking about the trick of greeting a horse the way another horse would. When strange horses met up, they huffed their breaths at each other, and when humans did the same, horses liked it.
“It would take more than that to settle Dandy down,” I said. “But I’ll try it anyway.”
“So which horse are you planning to use?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet. Maybe Mouse, but he’s a pokey old thing. I couldn’t win the barrel race on him.”
Serena sighed and pushed her shiny black hair off her cheek. “I wish I could ride better. I have to stick with the stuff for little kids, like the egg race, or the potato race.”
“Hey, you should try the flag race too,” I said. “You’ve learned a lot, and Eagle’s a good horse.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
Up and down the bus, the rodeo was the only topic of conversation. All of us who took the long ride to school together each day were ranchers’ kids. The older boys, including my pal Drew, who grew up with me on the Double Diamond, were planning to compete in calf roping and bronco busting, but the folks who planned the rodeo always included events for everyone, from the men who tried to stick on the bulls down to the littlest kids only three or four years old.
The town celebrated Founders’ Day every fall with a cookout, parade and speeches, but most important, the rodeo. People came from all over to compete, but we always hoped our own folks would take the top prizes.
“What other events are there?” Serena asked. She’d only moved to Colorado last spring, so it was new to her.
“Goat-tying is fun.”
“Goat-tying?” she said, blinking in surprise. “What’s that?”
“It’s like calf-roping, but you use a goat instead. First you have to lasso it, then you hop off your horse and tie three of the four legs. Fastest one wins.”
“I wish I knew how to throw a lasso,” she said. “Is it hard to learn?”
“It takes a lot of practice, but I could try to teach you,” I frowned. “Practice is the tricky part in all the events. Most of us ride all the time at home, but extra coaching would help, if we’re going to beat the kids from other towns. Last year, the school talked about holding special practice sessions on the weekends, but nothing came of it.”
“That would be good,” Serena said. “Do you think maybe they’ll do it this year?”
“I heard Mrs. Brown is on the Founders’ Day planning committee. I’ll ask her about it when we get to school,” I said.
And that’s what I did. “Homework” Brown was the strictest teacher in the entire United States, but she was a fair one too. She was good at listening, and respecting your views, which I appreciated.
She nodded when I explained my request that morning. “I remember people discussing the idea last year,” she said. “The problem was, no one was free to organize it. Lots of them said they’d help out, but no one would take charge.”
“I’ll bet Anna could do it,” I said. “She’s great at organizing things.”
“Who is Anna?” Mrs. Brown asked.
“Anna Diamond, my friend Drew’s mother.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I didn’t have Drew in my class last year, but I know who he is. Nice boy.”
“Yes, ma’am, he is. Anyway, his mom and dad own the Double Diamond, where I live. My dad is the foreman there. Drew’s dad, Andy Diamond, handles the cattle mostly, and his mom, Anna, runs the dude ranch part, taking care of the guests who stay with us. She plans all the parties and cookouts and pack trips. Did you hear about the Red Hot-Red Dog Chili Cooking Contest we had a little while ago? She organized that.”
“I heard about it,” Mrs. Brown said. “It was the talk of the town, and everyone is hoping they’ll hold it again real soon.”
“They’re already making plans to,” I said. “But right now is a quiet time at the ranch for Anna. The weather is so cold that we only have a few guests. We’ll be full up come Thanksgiving and Christmas, but Anna was saying just yesterday she hardly knows what to do with herself, with only a few people to entertain.”
“Why don’t you ask her if she could organize the coaching sessions?” Mrs. Brown suggested. “If she’s interested, tell her to call me and I can give her the names of people who volunteered to help out last year.”
“I’ll do that,” I said. “I’m sure she’ll say yes.”
Snobby Lizzie Platz wore her blond, super-curly hair tied back with a red bow that day. Frizzie Lizzie, we called her. Naturally, she spent the day bragging to anyone who would listen about her horse, Medicine Man. He was a sorrel, almost seventeen hands high, which I have to admit is a good-sized horse, but I didn’t believe everything she claimed about him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she told us he’d once swum across the Pacific ocean, or captured a gang of robbers all by himself.
On the way home from school I kept thinking about the rodeo. “I bet I could win if Dad would let me ride Dandy,” I told Serena.
“Do you think you could handle him?” she asked.
“I’d sure like to try. He’s my only hope, if Frizzie Lizzie’s horse is as good as she says he is.”
“But will your father even let you get on Dandy?” she asked.
“I can ask. No harm in that, is there?” I knew Dad would at least listen to me. He always did.
“Call me tonight and tell me what he says.” She picked up her book bag as the bus—at long last—pulled to a stop at the foot of our mountain.
The blond, blue-eyed, brawny, beautiful Hatcher twins were right behind us as we stepped off the bus.
“Hey, Chang,” Zeke said to Serena. “Think the Forty-Niners will make it to the Superbowl this year?”
“Sure,” Serena said. “They’re the best team in the country. Did you see that punt return in the third quarter last Sunday?”
“Yup,” Josh said. “But I’m betting on the Denver Broncos this year. They’re ready, and they’re hungry.”
“That’s true,” Serena agreed. She looked so tiny and dark compared to the golden Hatchers. She wasn’t a flirty-type girl, but I could see the twins were impressed with her ability to speak footballese. “But I think San Francisco can do it again.”
“Want to make a little wager on it?” Zeke asked.
“Why not? I’ve got a nickel.” Serena laughed and dug a coin out of her pocket.
“Ha!” Josh said. “Let us know when you’re ready to talk real money.” He slapped her on the back—gently—and the two of them strolled over to the pickup waiting for them.
“Wow, Serena,” I said. “How come you know so much about football?”
“You would too, if you had three older brothers—and a father—who are all major Forty-Niner fans.” She dropped the nickel back in her pocket. “Besides, it’s the only way to talk to the twins, and I think they’re really cute.”
“They’re hunks, for sure,” I said. “But all they care about is sports. I think football’s boring.”
“Come over to our house and watch the game the next time San Francisco plays. I promise you won’t be bored.” Grinning, she opened the door of the Changs’ station wagon.
Anna drove us down the mountain to the bus stop in the mornings and Serena’s mom picked us up each afternoon. Mrs. Chang would take Drew and me all the way up to the Double Diamond, then visit with Anna for a little while before she and Serena went home to the Lazy B, which was partway down the mountain.
Dad was out mending fences with Andy Diamond and the few ranch hands who stayed with us all winter, so I didn’t have a chance to ask him about riding Dandy in the rodeo until he came in for supper.
I saved a seat for him at the end of the long table in the dining room where the guests and staff ate together. There were so few of us now, we only filled the one table.
While Dad buttered a slab of Red Wing’s homemade oatmeal bread, I told him about what a snob Lizzie Platz was, and how I wished I could beat her, but I couldn’t ride Belle since she was too close to foaling time.
Then I went on to say, “But how can I win without a really good horse? Mouse isn’t fast enough, and neither are any of the others. The only horse we have that can touch Belle for speed is…” I watched for his reaction. “…Dandy.”
“Dandy?” Dad was so startled, he dropped the butter knife. “Chris, he almost tossed me off the other day. You wouldn’t be able to handle him.”
“I could try,” I said. “At least give me a chance to find out.”
“I don’t know, Chris.” Dad’s the most laid-back cowboy you’d ever want to meet and he never jumped in with both feet, the way I tend to do. In that way, I take after my mom. She and Dad are divorced but she calls me from the road while she’s trying to get her big break to make it as a country-western singing star. “Let me think about it.”
“Go right ahead,” I said. “But you know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure I could do it.”
The lady sitting next to me passed the salad bowl and I heaped my plate high while Dad ran the idea over in his mind. After he’d helped himself to salad, he speared an olive and put it on my plate, knowing how much I liked them. Then he finally spoke. “I don’t like to say no without reason, so I suppose it’s only fair to give you a chance. Saturday morning, I’ll watch you ride Dandy, but—”
“Thanks, Dad!” I put my fork down and hugged him. “He’ll behave for me, I know he will.”
“Hi, Chris,” Anna Diamond said, stopping by my chair. She was late for supper because she’d been phoning some of the volunteers from Mrs. Brown’s list. She’d jumped at the idea of organizing the coaching sessions, just as I knew she would. “I forgot to tell you earlier,” she said to me. “Guess who’s arriving tomorrow?”
“Who?” I asked. Usually the guests arrived on Sundays and tomorrow was only Friday.
“Pat Walsh,” Anna said. “She found a special deal on an airline ticket so she’s coming earlier than we expected.”
“Mrs. Walsh! That’s great!” I said.
I’d been looking forward to her visit ever since Dad’s friend Amanda Morris sent me the dressage saddle. Mrs. Walsh was an expert at dressage—you say it dress-aage—and I’d written and asked if she’d be willing to give me lessons while she was staying with us. When she wrote back “yes,” I was as pleased as a filly in a field of clover.
Dressage is a way of riding that’s almost like dancing on four hooves. If you’ve ever seen those white Lippizaner horses from the Spanish Riding School on TV, you’ve seen dressage. They do “airs above the ground” where they almost dance on their hind legs and form all those weaving patterns, where they crisscross back and forth, never running into each other. It looks like the riders are just sitting still, but in fact, they’re giving their horses teensy little signals you don’t even notice.
“That’s good timing,” Dad said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Learning dressage will be great for Belle,” he said. “It won’t be too hard on her, and it will keep her exercised and interested in something new.”
“Wow,” I said. “With getting ready for the rodeo and the dressage lessons, I’ll be spending a lot of time in the saddle.”
“Don’t forget your schoolwork, Chris,” Anna said. “Mrs. Brown told me your attitude has improved and we don’t want to see any slips, do we?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep up.”
But school was the least important part of my life at that moment. I couldn’t wait to start dressage lessons—plus I still had to prove to Dad that I could handle Dandy so I could ride him in the rodeo and beat that stuck-up Lizzie Platz.
Copyright © 1998 by Louise Ladd