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"Call me just plain Chris," I said, leaning down from the saddle to shake hands with Mr. Winters. He and his two kids had just arrived at the Double Diamond Dude Ranch, where my dad and I live and work.
"Nice to meet you, Just Plain Chris," Mr. Winters said.
I pushed out a smile while I bit back a groan. That joke was older than the Rocky Mountains. I'd have to remind Dad again. He was always forgetting—introducing me as Crystal, which might be my given name but didn't fit me any better than somebody else's boots.
"Can I ride a horse now?" Benji Winters asked. He was nine, a towhead with a crooked grin.
"Benji, don't be so impatient," his sister, Melissa, said. When he introduced her, Dad told me Melissa was going into sixth grade in the fall, like me. I hadn't made up my mind about her yet. She was as blond as her brother, and dressed in too-new clothes, but she might turn out to be okay.
"She's riding," Benji said, pointing to me and my mare, Belle.
"I work here." I grinned. "I'm a junior wrangler. That's means I help the other wranglers take care of the horses, and we're the ones who take you out on the trail rides."
"You've got a neat horse," Benji said.
"Thanks." I patted Belle's neck. Like most cow ponies, she isn't big, just under sixteen hands, but her chestnut coat is a deep reddish-copper color, her mane a shade or two lighter, and she has a perfect white blaze on her nose. Dad was sure she had some Arabian in her somewhere because of the fine shape of her head, the arch of her neck, and her smarts. She's one clever horse, and she's also the prettiest horse on the ranch, in my not-so-humble opinion. I bought her two years ago with the money I earned as a junior wrangler.
"When do I get to ride?" Benji asked.
"Let's get you settled in first, son," Dad said. "There'll be a trail ride going out right after lunch. That soon enough for you, buckaroo?"
"I guess." He shrugged, but looked toward the barn with hungry eyes.
"Chris, where's Drew?" Dad asked. "These people need help with their bags."
"I'll do it," I said, dismounting. I knew Drew had stayed in town to hang out with the guys, even though he was needed at the ranch.
"Thanks, honey, but that doesn't answer my question," Dad said. He was the ranch foreman and it was up to him to see that everyone did their jobs when, and how, they were supposed to be done.
"He went into town to help Red Wing shop for groceries this morning." I knew Dad didn't want us discussing problems in front of the guests, so I tied Belle to the hitching post and picked up a couple of suitcases. The Winters family followed me into the front hall to sign in with Drew's mom. Anna Diamond ran the registration desk, along with almost everything else to do with taking care of the guests.
Leaving them inside, I went back out on the porch where Dad was waiting.
"Okay, so Drew went into town with Red Wing," he said in his relaxed way. My dad is about the most laid-back cowboy you've ever met, and that's saying something. "Why didn't he come back with her?"
"He, uh, mentioned he might meet some of the guys," I mumbled, then added quickly, "just for a little while. He said he'd catch a ride with Hank when he picks up the next group of guests."
"Looks like that's them now." Dad squinted in the bright June sun, watching our van chugging up the dirt drive.
Some guests, like the Winters, arrived in their own cars, but a lot flew into the airport where we met them. The trip took the van through town, more than an hour's drive from the ranch."
Hank pulled up in front of the porch. He and Drew hopped out and began to unload the guests' luggage. It's always fun to see how often people arrive with piles of bags, then usually end up wearing the same old comfortable clothes once they settle in and get used to ranch ways.
"Drew," Dad said quietly as he went past. That was all that was needed. Drew knew what was up. He helped Hank move the new people inside to register, then came back out, looking real sheepish.
"I did all my chores," he said, not whining, just explaining. "And Maggie told me she didn't need me on the morning trail ride. I only stayed in town an extra hour."
"You should have checked with me." Dad didn't raise his voice; he just gave Drew a level look, then ambled over to the barn.
"Gol, Chris, he didn't have to bawl me out like that," Drew said, taking off his cowboy hat and whacking it against his leg. His reddish-brown hair was nice and wavy, not straight like mine. "There's more to life than this ranch, you know."
"We're being paid to do a job," I said. "What's got into you, Drew? You never used to mind the ranch."
Or me, I added to myself. It had been lonely these last weeks before school let out, when Drew and his friends realized they'd be going into seventh grade next year. Suddenly they were all into guy stuff, and a girl like me didn't stand a chance of being noticed. And these were the boys I'd gone fishing with, played baseball with, skied with. I'd even taught half of them to ride. How come I was suddenly invisible?
"I don't mind the ranch. I just need to have fun once in a while," Drew said.
"We used to have fun together," I blurted out. I hated for him to hear me complain, but I couldn't help it. "We always did everything together, ever since we were babies. Now, it's like I don't exist."
"Aw, Chris, that's not true. It's just that a guy needs to talk to other guys once in a while, you know?"
The string of guests and their horses, led by Maggie, our head wrangler, was winding down the trail, coming back for lunch, and we'd be needed to help.
I untied Belle's reins from the hitching post and we headed over, reaching the corral just as the riders straggled in. Some rode up to the mounting block and climbed off; most dismounted the regular way. But, being newcomers, they all walked like they were stiff and sore—some of them even staggered a bit, their knees bent out bowlegged. I'd been stretching my legs around a pony's belly since I was old enough to walk, but it was tough on the guests the first few days, until they got used to it.
We gave the horses a lunch snack but left their saddles on, as they'd be riding out in the afternoon. My Belle was different. I unsaddled her, even if it meant I'd just have to resaddle soon. She was expecting a foal come winter, and I tried to give her a break every chance I got.
"You can turn Popcorn out into the pasture," Maggie told me. "He's limping a little—his right foreleg."
I felt for swelling but couldn't find anything. "I'll bet he's faking again. Old Popcorn knows the busy season's starting. He's so lazy he'll do anything to get out of work."
Maggie grinned. "Maybe, but Jumping Jack needs the exercise anyway. I want you and Drew to ride out with us this afternoon. Okay?"
Maggie had been working for us, summers, since she was thirteen. Now she was with us full-time so she could save up money to finish college. She was tall and blond, just like I wanted to be—but wasn't.
I'm built small like my mom, with your basic brown hair. The only thing interesting about me is my eyes, which change from grayish to greenish to bluish, people tell me. I never could see it myself. The rest of me is about as ordinary as you can get, unless I'm on a horse. I'm pretty good in a saddle.
We checked the horses for cuts, scratches, sore feet. All except Popcorn were fit for the afternoon ride. After lunch, we'd have to bring eight more in from the pasture: Jumping Jack to replace Popcorn, plus three for the Winters family, and four for the two couples who'd just arrived in Hank's last load.
When I was through, I washed up and headed for the main house, running into Drew's dad, Andy, who owned the ranch. He was just coming in from looking over the calves.
Andy—Andrew John Diamond III, to be exact—spent most of his time with our beef cattle. My dad helped with that side of the business, too. We raised several hundred head every year.
"How's it going, Chris?" Andy asked. "Did you find that cow who's ready to calve?"
"Not a sign of her. She's a wily one. How're the other mamas and babies?"
"Doing fine so far. Of course, on a pretty day like this, it all looks fine, doesn't it?"
"Sure does." I looked up at the deep blue sky and the mountain peaks rising around us. As always, I thought there couldn't be a better place to live than the Colorado Rockies.
"How's your mare?" Andy asked as we went up on the porch and headed for the dining room.
"Feeling frisky." I grinned. This would be Belle's first foal, and she seemed to be enjoying her condition.
Andy shook his head. He knew how disappointed Dad was. In addition to being foreman, Dad's specialty was breeding the ranch horses. He'd planned to fix Belle up with a good quarter horse over on the Jenkins place. Quarter horses make great cow ponies as well as trail horses.
Belle had different ideas. One night last spring I left her stall door unbolted. She's so smart, she knows how to raise the regular latch with her teeth. She let herself out and took off into the mountains, where she hooked up with Pirate, a wild palomino stallion who'd wandered into our area a couple of years ago. The ranchers weren't real happy with the way he liked to lure their best mares away. They'd tried to catch him, but he was too crafty and fast.
Belle ran off with the mustang during the worst weather. It was a couple of weeks before we could get through the snow to bring her home. Soon after, the vet confirmed what we expected—Belle was carrying Pirate's foal. Dad was real disappointed, and I knew it was all my fault. Still, I had to admire Belle's independent spirit, and I hoped the colt or filly might have at least a few good qualities, even if the sire was a tough old scarred-up mustang.
"Andy, will you join us?" Bill Kelly called when we entered the dining room. He and his family were regulars. They'd been coming to the ranch every summer since their kids were in diapers. Now Kevin was eight, and little Angela had just graduated from kindergarten and was all excited about going into first grade.
I looked around the long tables where the guests and staff ate together. We were moving into our busy season, when schools let out all across the country and families were free to take off for our mountain ranch. We had guests most of the year, but in June the place really started jumping.
There were still a few empty chairs at the tables for lunch, but by tonight we'd be up to a full house, about two dozen guests. We were booked straight through the summer. They stayed at least a week, sometimes two or three. It gave us a chance to get to know people. They'd come from all over, so you learned about life outside Colorado, and most of them were really nice. Once in while we'd get a sour apple, but it didn't happen often. The type of person who likes horses, cows, and ranching tends to be the type of person it's easy to like.
I sat down beside Drew, who'd arrived before me. He was digging into Red Wing's famous stew, sopping up the gravy with fresh-baked bread.
"You riding out this afternoon?" he asked.
"Yup." I helped myself to the pot of stew one of the guests passed me. "You too, I hear."
"Everyone's going fishing over at Pinkham's pond," Drew muttered. "All the guys but me."
"That's okay, I'll go fishing with you in Cold Creek after we get back from the ride."
"Nah, it wouldn't be the same," he said.
That hurt, but I tried not to show it. "Fishing's fishing," I said, shrugging.
"It's not the fishing I'm talking about."
Enough was enough. "Look here, Andrew-John-Diamond-the-Fourth, I've been a good friend to you. We've gone through chicken pox and blizzards and even a cattle stampede together. How come all of a sudden you treat me like a dog that's been rolling in the manure pile?"
"I don't mean there's anything wrong with you. It's just that, well…you're a girl."
"Well, what the heck am I supposed to do about that?" I demanded.
His ears turned pink. "Nothing, I guess."
Great. Just terrific. How can a little thing like sex ruin a lifelong friendship?
Copyright © 1998 by Louise Ladd