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"Serena, I think it's time to start shopping for the perfect horse for you," I said as she brought Eagle to a halt in front of me.
It seemed like such a natural idea at the time. I wonder if I would have suggested it if I'd known the trouble it would lead to.
"Wow, Chris, do you really think I'm ready?" Serena's dark almond-shaped eyes sparkled like Christmas lights.
"Yup." I leaned on the pasture fence, my mare, Belle, standing quiet beside me. "You're handling Eagle real well now, and much sooner than I expected. He's a lot of horse, but you've got him going over those jumps like a jackrabbit."
"They're only small jumps," she said, trying to sound modest. In truth, I knew she was pretty pleased with herself and she had a right to be.
I mounted Belle. "Why don't we ask your dad and mine to watch you ride, see if they agree."
"Oh gosh," Serena said. "If they say yes, I'll feel like I'm graduating from school!"
"Ugh, don't mention that word." I rode over and opened the pasture gate for her. "I can't believe school starts so soon. How did summer whiz by so fast?"
"It's been the best summer of my life," she said, riding through the gate. "I was crazy to think I didn't want to leave San Francisco."
The Changs had moved to Colorado last May, when they bought a ranch called the Lazy B partway down the mountain from us. Serena had arrived scared to death of horses and, with a little help from me, had finally turned into a rider good enough to be thinking of buying her own.
I was real proud of her. Even though we were the same age, going into sixth grade, I'd been her teacher. When you've lived on a dude ranch your whole life, riding comes as easy as walking, maybe easier.
We shut the gate and started back at a slow jog. I kept thinking how nice it was to have a best friend like Serena, another girl to share things with. Especially now that my old pal, Drew Diamond, who grew up with me on the ranch, was starting seventh grade and wanting to hang out with the guys more often. Not that we weren't still real good friends, but it wasn't like in the old days when it was just the two of us, always together.
"Can you and your father come over after supper?" I asked. "Dad will have time to watch you ride this evening. Most of the guests are on the overnight pack trip and the Double Diamond will be pretty quiet."
"Why didn't you go along on the trail?" Serena asked. "You usually do. Isn't it part of your job as a junior wrangler?"
"Drew's mom decided this is Get Ready for School night." I couldn't help making a face, just thinking about it.
Since my own mom left the ranch when I was six, Anna Diamond was one of the people who did mother-type things for me, along with Red Wing, our cook, and Maggie, our head wrangler. It was a good system. Instead of one, I had three different people I could go to with a problem, depending on the need. Anna was super at planning stuff.
Anna and her husband, Andy, owned the dude ranch. We had as many as two dozen guests staying with us during most of the year, to enjoy our mountain life and horseback riding. We also raised several hundred head of beef cattle. Andy mainly looked after the cows, while Anna loved to organize all the guests' social events, like cookouts, sing-alongs, hayrides and parties.
"What is Get Ready for School night?" Serena asked.
"Anna drags Drew and me into our bedrooms and goes over our clothes, checking to see what new stuff we need to buy."
"It sounds like you'll be busy then. Maybe I should ask Dad to come over another time."
"No! I'll do anything to get out of it! How can you think of wool sweaters and snow boots in August when it's still so hot?"
"It's weird to be starting school so early," she said. "In California we didn't have to go back until after Labor Day."
"I know, I hate it too. But remember how it was last year, when we got out in early June? The mountains were all fresh and green, and the pastures were full of foals and calves. June's one of the prettiest months in the Rockies and it's great to be free to enjoy it."
We reached a meadow and urged the horses into a good fast run. My mare, Belle, was expecting a foal come winter and I liked to keep her well exercised so she'd be in peak condition. We raced through the meadow and up a rise, then down through an aspen grove, only slowing when we neared the ranch.
Back at the corral, while we unsaddled Serena said, "I can't believe you think I'm ready to look for my own horse! And I know just what I want—a palomino!"
"A horse's good nature is more important than the color of its coat," I said.
"Then I'll get a palomino with a good nature!"
I laughed. "Let's wait and see what Dad says. He's the horse expert." My dad was ranch foreman, and also in charge of breeding the dozen or so colts and fillies we raised each year. What he didn't know about horses would fit in a baby's bootie.
"Gee, I hope he thinks I'm ready," Serena said. "I sure feel ready. And excited! But are you sure tonight's the best time for us to come over?"
"Why not? It stays light out until almost nine."
"I mean about Anna and your school clothes."
"It's perfect," I said. "This way, I can tell Anna to order whatever she wants and I'll wear it."
"You're kidding!" Serena stared at me. "Don't you like to choose your own clothes?"
I shrugged. "Jeans, shirts, sweaters—they're all pretty much the same. What difference does it make?"
"But what about the new styles and all?" Serena asked.
"Anna knows more about that than I do. Don't worry, I'll make out just fine."
Serena shook her head, grinning. "I guess you will. You always do."
* * *
Just as I suspected, Anna was a bit relieved to find out she wouldn't have to argue with me about clothes. I always wanted the plainest jeans and shirts, and she liked me to dress the way the other girls did. I knew she'd pull out a pile of magazines and study up on the newest fashions, then go down the mountain to scout out what the town girls thought was "hot." As long as she didn't overdo it, I figured I could live with her choices.
Besides, now that I was going into sixth grade, maybe it was time I began to dress more like the other girls. I'd made a stab at trying to copy them this summer, but it was like trying to nail a pony's horsehoe onto a race horse—not a real good fit.
Still, with Serena's mom giving my boring-brown hair a decent cut now and then, and Anna in charge of my clothes, maybe I could fool people into thinking I cared about something other than horses, which I didn't.
Right after supper, Serena's whole family drove up in their jeep. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Chang, there were three brothers, Tommy, Matt and David, all in high school or college. I guess they were curious to see how well their little baby sister could ride, now that she had pushed past her fear of horses.
"I begged them not to come," Serena said as she followed me into the corral where I had Eagle saddled and waiting. "I feel like I'm taking final exams in front of the whole world!"
"Easy now," I said. "There's no reason to be nervous. You'll do fine. Just remember you're in charge, not Eagle, and put him over the rails the way you've been doing."
"You hear that, Eagle?" she asked, taking him gently by the jaws and looking into his eyes. "You make a fool of me and I won't let you jump at all tomorrow."
It was a dire threat. Eagle loved jumping, unlike most cow ponies. He was always delighted to find a rider who shared his opinion.
We'd set up several low jumps in the pasture down by the pond and I followed Serena through the gate, riding Belle.
Besides the Changs, several of the guests had collected along the fence, including Mr. Harris. He'd been a top rodeo winner in his day but was too creaky with age to ride anymore. Still, he loved the ranch life so he came to us every summer to get away from "that blasted retirement home and those old folks," as he put it. He was a popular guest, always willing to share a few tales of the old days.
Until this summer. Somehow the spirit had gone out of Mr. Harris and no one knew why. He'd play a game of bridge, or sing along with the others when Jamie pulled out his guitar, but he spent a lot of time on the porch staring out at the Rocky Mountain peaks that surrounded our valley. Whatever was troubling him, he wouldn't say. Still, he was one of my favorite guests.
"Gosh, do they all have to watch?" Serena asked me, staring at the small group lining the fence.
"Pretend they're not there," I said. "Or think of them as scarecrows, stuffed with straw. It's just you and Eagle who count, so keep your mind on your horse and you'll do fine."
She flashed me a nervous smile, then I saw her settle herself and Eagle into the partnership she was so good at forming, no matter which horse she rode.
She gave the credit to a trick I'd taught her when she first started to ride. "Exchanging breaths helps a lot," she'd say whenever I commented on how well she was doing.
It's an odd but interesting fact that if you greet a horse the same way they greet each other, it speeds up the friendship process. When horses meet, they huff into each others' noses, sort of the way we shake hands. Serena first tried exchanging breaths with a colt, and since then had made it a habit as she moved up in her riding skills, advancing from Sneakers to Bumper to Eagle.
"Have fun," I called as she rode off. I crossed my fingers for her, hoping I'd taught her well enough to pass the test.
She loped down to the far end of the pasture, then turned Eagle toward the first of the six low jumps. He skimmed over it, and took the next three with the same ease. At the fifth, he was going a little fast but slowed the moment Serena gave him the signal. He sailed over it, and the last one, as smooth as butter.
Serena grinned, then urged Eagle into a fast run, racing along the pasture fence for the pure joy of it. Finally, she brought him to a neat halt in front of her dad and mine.
Belle and I rode over to hear their comments.
"Well, Lew, what do you say?" Dad asked Mr. Chang. Serena had told me his name in Chinese was actually "Lu," but he long ago began spelling it the American way to avoid confusion.
"Well now, Bart," Mr. Chang said slowly, drawing it out to tease Serena, "I'd have to say my little girl can ride some. But as to getting her a horse of her own…"
Mai Chang poked her husband in the ribs. "Cut it out, you two. Don't keep her in suspense. Serena, you were great! You've learned so much in such a short time. If I could reach you up on that horse, I'd give you a hug!"
"I guess your wife has made up your mind for you, Lew," Dad said, winking.
"As usual," Mr. Chang said. "So, Serena, it looks like we'll be going horse-shopping soon."
"Alll riiight!" She tore off her hat and threw it in the air. "Can we tart tomorrow?"
Everyone laughed, pleased with her eagerness.
"I could make a few calls tomorrow," Dad said. "But it's a little early in the fall for most of the local ranchers to be selling off stock. I did hear there'd be an auction though, not too far from here, a week from Saturday. A bunch of horses brought down from the north, where the winter weather comes early."
"An auction!" Serena said. "That would be so much fun."
"Well, we'll go take a look," Mr. Chang said. "But don't expect to come home with anything. We have to find the right horse for you, and that might take some time."
"Sure, we'll just take a look," Serena agreed, but I wondered if she meant it. She was so excited I wasn't sure we could rein her in when the time came.
* * *
Another kind of excitement—not the good kind—was waiting for me that night when I finally got back to the cabin I shared with Dad.
Usually we pick up our mail in the main lodge, but someone had slipped a letter addressed to me under the door. I'd been so busy that day I hadn't gone near the office, so Anna, or maybe Red Wing, thought they'd be helpful.
If they wanted to be really helpful, they should have burned the darn thing.
The letter was from the school principal. I tore open the envelope, not stopping to wonder what the news might be.
"Oh no!" I ran for the phone and dialed Serena's number. When she answered I said, "Did you get a letter from the school today?"
"Yes," Serena said. "Why are you so upset? It only says that instead of having Mr. Cox, like they told us we would, we have different teacher because they had to rearrange the classes."
"Did you get assigned to the same teacher I did?" I asked, my heart full of dread. "Did you get Mrs. Brown?"
"Yes, did you? Gosh, I hope we're in the same class."
"We, are," I said in a funeral voice. "At least we'll be wading through the same mud hole together."
"What's wrong with Mrs. Brown?" she asked in panic.
"She's only the strictest teacher in the whole United States," I said. "They call her "Homework" Brown, and for a good reason. Get ready—it's going to be a very long year."
Copyright ©1998 by Louise Ladd