The sun lay far below the horizon, barely warming the eastern
sky. In the west, a nearly full moon hung low in the sky, enlarged and tinted
orange by Earth’s atmosphere. Crickets still chirped their night song when the
truck and horse trailer rumbled into the yard. Headlights flooded the little
barn with light, and Annie shivered with excitement.
“They’re here, Midnight! Are you ready for a trail ride?”
Midnight snuffled in the bottom of his feed bin for the last of
his oats. I’m always ready for a trail ride. Will we have hay in the trailer?
“You’re always hungry! Here’s your hay-bag. There’s enough for
today and tomorrow, and even some oats.” Fingers trembling with excitement,
Annie checked the cinch on Midnight’s saddle. Her bedroll and saddlebags full of
trail snacks were tied securely to the back of the saddle. She looped a canteen
of water over the saddle horn and slipped some fresh carrots and apples into the
“I lifted some carrots for you. We can both eat an extra energy
snack when we find the gold mine,” she whispered to Midnight. “I read all about
it last night.”
I will help you find this place. I like carrots, may I have one now?
Johnny emerged from the back door of the house carrying a
bedroll. His thick, black hair was hidden under a new cowboy hat. “I’m ready
too.” He called. “Are you sure we won’t need our coats? It might be cold up in
“Not likely,” Annie said. “Arizona mountains are pretty much as
hot as the valleys in the summer. It’s not like the mountains in Washington,
where you come from. If it gets chilly at night, we’ll have a camp fire and of
course good sleeping bags.” Annie said. “Hurry, I want you to meet my friends!”
Johnny heaved his bedroll into the back of the truck as three
people piled out of the, double cab pickup truck.
“Uncle Johnny, you already met Daddy’s boss, Mr. Stanton. I got
Midnight from him.”
Mr. Stanton extended his hand for a shake. “You ready to ride, Branson?”
“Mornin’, sir. Yep, been looking forward to it. Not often a guy
gets the vacation before the work.”
“This is his oldest son, James. I think he’s your age.” The boys shook hands.
“And Eddie is the baby of the family,” Annie teased.
Eddie huffed in mock anger, “I’m older than you are!”
“By a whole month!” Annie shot back at him, laughing.
“And don’t forget, I’m the one who trained your pony!” Eddie
smiled and shook Johnny’s hand. “I’m glad you could make the ride with us.”
“Did you bring me a horse?” Johnny said, peering into the dark
stock trailer, stroking a chunky dun Quarter Horse.
James stepped to the trailer. “That’s my barrel racing horse,
Hammer. The buckskin next to him is Dad’s ride, Sampson. You get my sister’s
horse, Lady, the brown and white paint at the back,” he said. “You wanna try her
while we load Midnight? Lady doesn’t like to be stuffed into the trailer. We try
to put her in last where she can see better.” James went to the back of the long
stock trailer to open the gate. The horses were already saddled, tied side by
side in the open trailer. Lady stepped gingerly down the ramp, nickering to her
old friend Midnight.
“She’s as gentle as a lamb, but take her around the yard once.
Let her get used to your scent before you mount her,” James suggested.
Johnny stroked Lady’s sleek neck and held a chunk of carrot for
her to nibble. As he led the mare across the yard, Annie heard a familiar
jingle. Light glittered from something fastened to the heel of her uncle’s boot.
“You have Grandpa’s silver parade spurs!” Annie cried out.
“Yup, that’s the surprise.” Johnny gave the spurs an extra jingle.
“I love those spurs! Did he finally give them to you?” Annie
jumped up and down in awe of the magnificent silver-inlayed, Spanish-style
parade spurs. “Or are they for me, ‘cause I’m his favorite granddaughter?”
“You wish!” laughed Johnny. “Pa gave them to me before I left
town to come to Arizona.” Johnny stopped the mare and checked the cinch,
preparing to mount. “He said something about good luck. Like I need it or something.”
James spoke up, “Better ride light, Lady’s a bit ticklish.”
But his warning came too late.
Johnny swung his leg easily over the high cantle of the western
saddle and settled into the seat. His boots found the wide stirrups and he
gathered the reins in his left hand. He leaned slightly forward and clucked to Lady.
“Come on girl, let’s walk a bit.” The mare stepped out eagerly,
but when Johnny reached down to pat her neck, his spurs brushed Lady’s sensitive ribs.
Lady leaped forward, and Johnny tipped backward in the saddle.
Already experienced with bucking horses, Johnny gripped the wide pommel of the
western saddle with his knees to keep his balance. He grabbed wildly at the
reins to pull up the slack and gain control of the fighting mare. Lady shook her
head and grabbed the bit in her teeth. She heaved herself into the air, kicking
in all directions at the same time then charged head down toward the road.
“Whoa!” Annie called along with the rest of the group. She
glanced in panic at the road. Morning traffic filled both lanes. Midnight
already stood in the horse trailer. His bridle hung secure from his saddle, but
his halter rope was not yet tied. Annie grabbed the rope and sprang into the
saddle. She cried out again. “Noooooo!” Midnight leaped from the trailer with a
rattling of hooves.
Lady would not be slowed; again she plunged and kicked; her
hooves clapping on the hard pavement. Annie feared she would slip and fall. Cars
swerved, horns honked, and headlights cut erratic lines in the darkness. Horses
whinnied from the trailer. The beautiful quiet morning was shattered.
Without the use of the bridle, Annie buried her fingers in
Midnight’s thick mane. She fastened her eyes on the mare charging down the
middle of the road, carrying her uncle into doom. Midnight bolted after them,
whinnying as loud as he could.
Hold tight, we will save them. He directed his thoughts toward the fleeing mare.
LADY! I am your friend! Come back!
As if guided by unseen hands, Lady leaped to the side of the
road and Midnight was by her side. Annie grabbed the bridle and pulled Lady into
a tight turn as she did with the racehorses while ponying them at the track. In
true cowboy form, Johnny released his boots from the stirrups and leaned out to
grab Annie by the shoulders. He deftly swung out of the saddle and landed
lightly on the ground on the other side of Midnight’s rump.
The rodeo was over.
Lady’s eyes no longer rimmed with white and her breathing slowed
as Annie led her back to the yard. Annie rubbed Midnight’s neck and whispered,
“Thank you.” She received images of fear and grief from her pony, transmitted
from the mare. “It’s alright, Midnight. Tell her that Uncle Johnny is okay, and
he is very sorry he frightened her. He won’t jab her with the spurs anymore.”
Annie turned as Johnny stooped to unbuckle the beautiful spurs.
“Here! You take these. I’m never wearing them again for the rest of my life!”
“Oh, Uncle Johnny, I can’t.” Annie reached for the spurs then
held her hands against her chest, refusing to take them. “I love those spurs so
much and I love Grandpa. He’s the greatest horseman I’ve ever known, but he gave
those to you, his son.”
“And I know how much Pa loves you too. He knows what kind of
horseman you are. He always wanted you to have them. And anyway, you earned them
by rescuing the lad and Lady in distress! Seriously, I’m a mechanic at heart.
You’re the horseman of the family now, keep them.” Johnny hung the spurs over
Midnight’s saddle horn.
“I may never be the horseman that Grandpa is, but these will
remind me of him every day,” Annie whispered, running her fingers over the
ornate silver inlays. “Thank you.”
When they walked into the lighted back yard, Annie’s father
stood next to Mr. Stanton. Leo Beck reached for Midnight’s halter rope. His
normally sparkling gray eyes now drilled straight through Annie. “What do you
think you are doing taking off down a busy highway like that?”
“Daddy, I’m sorry. All I could think was that Lady was running off with Uncle Johnny.”
“You could have been killed out there if a car had hit you.” Mr.
Beck gripped the rope tighter. Annie saw his hand shaking, but couldn’t tell if
it was from fear or anger.
She held her chin up. “It’s no big deal, Daddy. Midnight and I
do this all the time with the racehorses, and besides, we never got on the road.
I do know what I’m doing, sometimes.”
“This isn’t a track and your uncle has ridden in enough rodeos
to know how to handle a horse by himself. I think you should go unsaddle your
pony and take a pass on today’s ride. I’m not sure I can trust you to make safe decisions.”
Her father’s statement hit her like a bomb. Annie struggled to
keep from bursting into tears. She slipped from Midnight’s saddle and gripped
the pony’s mane for strength. “No, Daddy,” she pleaded. Why can’t you ever trust
me? I’m not a baby anymore. I can handle horses as good as anyone here. You’ve
never even seen me at the track. You don’t know what I can do!” She bit the
corner of her lip to keep it from trembling and blinked to hold back a rogue
tear threatening to make a run down her cheek.
“Hey bro,” Johnny stood beside Annie. “This was my fault. And
she does get that spunk from you. Don’t punish her for doing what you would’ve
done if you had the chance. Let her go with us and I will keep an eye on her.”
Mr. Stanton stepped forward with Eddie next to him. “Leo, I’ll
keep an eye on her too. This ride is only once a year and it would be a shame
for her to miss it.”
Eddie spoke up too. “It’s true, Mr. Beck, she’s good with the horses, I’ve watched her.”
Annie felt encouraged. “Daddy, I promise, nothing else will
happen. The whole club will watch out for me. Not only that, I have Midnight, he
won’t let anything happen to me.”
Midnight tossed his head and rubbed his face on Mr. Beck’s jeans
as if to confirm his rider’s statement.
“Alright Midnight, don’t push me over.” All eyes were on Mr.
Beck, and Annie held her breath. “Promise to call home as soon as you get to the
ranch. They do have phone service, don’t they?”
Annie breathed in relief, and Eddie and Johnny both patted her
on the back. Annie watched her father walk toward the pickup with his boss to
chat. A light came on in the house, and she saw the sleepy face of her little
brother peering out. She turned the pony back toward the trailer.
Are we going to run again? Midnight bobbed his head and stamped a front hoof.
“No, sweet Midnight,” Annie whispered, “no more running, just a
nice, quiet ride in the mountains.”
Johnny walked the mare around the yard again and bribed her with
a few more carrots before he stepped back into the saddle. “Let’s try that
again, pretty Lady, only this time without the blow-up.”
James and Eddie moved to the driveway to block the mare if she
decided to bolt again.
“I’m selling tickets to the rodeo,” Eddie sang, watching Johnny
lift his leg over Lady’s back and settle into the saddle
“Just as long as nothing else happens to keep us from going on
our trail ride,” Annie said.
After a few rounds of the yard, Johnny announced, “I think we’re
friends, now. Can head up to the mountain, since all the excitement is over?”
Annie tied Midnight in the stock trailer. “You did good catching Lady, boy.”
Lady and I are friends. I will keep her happy in the trailer.
Annie stood out of the way while Eddie and James coaxed the mare to load.
Midnight pressed his body against the rest of the horses in the trailer to make room for Lady.
* * * * *
Hurry, Lady, there is room for you beside me, Midnight nickered. It is safe now.
Lady rolled a quiet, worried snort and sniffed the stock trailer
floor before she gingerly took her place beside the black pony.
Are you sure? You know I hate climbing into these trailers. I’m glad you’re
here, Midnight, you are always right where I need you. Lady rubbed her head against her friend.
Midnight nickered, I told you when you moved away that we would meet again. He rubbed his head
against Lady’s neck.
I was so scared before. How did you catch me so fast? Lady nickered back.
I think it’s these new shoes my rider got for me. She told me they are special. Now I believe her.
I wish I had shoes like those. Is my rider safe? I thought he fell. I’ve never thrown a rider in my life.
Lady hung her head.
My rider tells me he is well. He did not fall. He jumped over me
when I caught up with you. It was like a game we used to play.
Maybe this is why we practice those games. Are all humans as wise as ours?
Lady lifted her head and pointed her ears forward.
We are lucky to have our humans, and to have this hay they gave us. Let’s eat.
Midnight and Lady pulled at the hay-bag as the trailer door clanked shut.
* * * * *
Annie started toward the pickup and James called out, “I get the window!”
“No way,” Eddie countered. “We draw straws. Long straw gets the
front; short stick gets the back seat in the middle.” He held out four sticks,
partially hidden in the palm of his hand, toward James and Johnny then offered
the last two to Annie. Her uncle winked as he reached for the door to the front
seat and Annie happily discovered she would sit next to a window.
Eddie dove for his spot in the center of the back seat and
hollered to Annie, “Hurry up slow-poke, you’re holding up the show!”
Annie scrambled into the oversized pickup, but her boot slipped, and she fell back to the driveway.
“Okay, Clumsy,” Eddie teased, “do I have to get out and push you in like we do with Lady?”
She leaped into the seat and gave Eddie a friendly punch in the
arm. “Hey, I’m not clumsy, I slipped on the doorframe!”
“Settle down, you two! No fighting or horseplay in the truck!” Mr. Stanton growled.
“These mountain trails can be fun, but goofing around can get someone hurt.”