"Meredith," she began softly, a bright blush stealing over her cheeks, "When we ride today, do you think anyone would mind if we headed in the direction of Clover Hill?" Her eyes sparkled, and I knew why. Clover Hill was where Chuck Braunmann lived.
Chuck was the oldest son of a farming family on Clover Hill. He was an enthusiastic, bright young man, but it just so happened that the Braunmanns were so poor that Chuck was the only one in his family who completed a college education, getting a Bachelor's Degree in History from Austin Community College.
Helena had met Chuck at a Fourth of July celebration, and the two hit it off very well. Her family, however, wished for her to marry better than Chuck; he was all right for a friend, but she should still consider herself "unattached." Only Charlie disagreed with his family (and his wife, who felt strongest of all in the matter), for he saw past the lack of money and the menial education and saw that Chuck was a diligent worker, very skilled, smart, honest, and very considerate of Helena, which were all qualities Charlie believed in. In spite of everyone else's opinion, it was obvious to anyone who watched Helena and Chuck that they both considered each other far more significant than merely friends.
I was not one to refuse a romantic tryst when it could be made, so I told Helena, "I don't see why not." I smiled at her.
Helena nodded her thanks and winked. "Don't tell anyone," she begged me. "They'd all tease if they knew! And you know Cassandra would refuse to go."
"I won't breathe a word," I promised.
We all headed out to the stable to get our horses. Barbi helped Cassandra mount Brownie, while Charlie assisted Helena with her horse. Adoniram helped Sofia, and Walter held Dierdre's horse steady as she swung her leg over the saddle. I looked to Lily, but Donny was already helping her up, which left only—
"Are you going to get on or not?"
I whirled around to face Fred, who patiently held the reins of my horse, a skittish palomino known as Painter.
"Sorry," I choked, unable to think of anything else to say. I went to lift my shoe into the stirrup, missed it completely, and would have fallen over if I hadn't been gripping the saddle so tightly. Painter whinnied and looked as if she might bolt at any second. Fred never moved to touch me; he soothed Painter and continued to wait. I fought to regain my composure, at last got my foot in securely enough to swing my other leg over the horse's back. As soon as he handed me the reins, Fred walked away from me and mounted his own horse smoothly on the first try.
"Everybody ready?" Charlie called from astride his horse Sarge.
"Ready!" Adoniram called back, holding his reins loosely and relaxing in the saddle like he was right at home.
As we all headed off of Mangrove Row, I worked my way up to alongside Charlie.
"Hey Chaz," I usually used his nickname only when I was asking a favor, "Can we head due west?" I nodded my head toward Clover Hill and winked.
Charlie laughed, "My sister put you up to this, didn't she?" I didn't bother replying since he knew the answer already, so he continued, "I don't see why not; Chuck should be home anyway, and glad to see us."
"Thanks," I told him, and he turned Sarge toward Clover Hill. I fell in behind him and Cassandra as we took off across the wide plain, toward the quaint farmhouse standing in the shade of the iconic rill.
It didn't take my sister long before she realized where we were going.
"Oh Charlie!" she moaned, "We aren't going to Clover Hill, are we?"
"Why not?" Charlie countered, "I'm certain Chuck is in town, and it's been a while since we've seen them. I don't doubt we'll all be welcome there."
"What about Fred?"
"What about him?"
Cassandra rolled her eyes, "I know Helena's the one who put you up to this! She's always been very close with Chuck Braunmann!"
"Oh! Why do you have to be such a—a man, sometimes!" Cassandra scoffed, "Can't you see it? Fred likes Helena."
"Fred likes Helena's sister, too."
"But he must like Helena better!"
"And why is this, hmm?" Charlie queried, separating from the other couples but ignoring the fact that I was following close enough to hear every word. "Why must Fred like Helena better? She's the one already spoken for!"
"Yeah, by a farmer!" Cassandra retorted. "The best Chuck can hope for is a desk job in some cubicle on the thirteenth floor of a high-rise." Cassandra made a noise, and I could tell she was sneering, "Hardly the right sort of life for a Mangrove!"
"Just because my 'desk' is frequently on the back of a horse doesn't make a real desk job any less than mine, dear wife," Charlie reminded her.
"Yes, but you're a cattle rancher, with a ranch, Charles," Cassandra returned, "And what does Chuck Braunmann have? A farm!" she spat the word as if it were something terrible.
"And a good-sized farm at that!" Charlie retorted.
"But just think, Charlie!" Cassandra persisted, "I'm sure once he starts working for NASA they'd give him all sorts of honors, perhaps make him captain of the space mission, wouldn't that be lovely? Or I'll bet it would be easy for a man as smart as he is to get a PhD, even. Then she'd be Mrs. Dr. Fredrick Winston! Oh! How wonderful that sounds!"
"There's a chance that Lily can become the Mrs. Dr.," Charlie noted.
Cassandra sighed and played with her horse's mane. "Well, there's still hope that she'll catch the eye of some young millionaire and be set for the rest of her life."
Charlie threw back his head and laughed, "Oh, so Helena is the one in the objectionable relationship, so it follows that she must be coaxed out of it with a perfect man like Fred, while Lily has yet to receive her significant assignment, is that right?"
"Well, I don't appreciate you putting it so bluntly, but yes—"
Just then, who should ride up but the young man in question.
Fred completely ignored me (I suppose I would have to get used to that) and guided his horse alongside Cassandra.
"Hey," he called over to Charlie, "Sofia wants to know where we're going, and how much longer it will take to get there."
Charlie chuckled, "She's saddle-sore already?"
Fred shook his head, "Adoniram rode the horses; my sister rode bikes growing up, but, yeah, she's gotten out of practice since she married."
"Oh!" Cassandra seized upon this moment, "How about we all gather at that clump of trees there," she pointed to the northwest, about thirty yards away. The fences of Clover Hill Farm were already visible on the horizon, but I could tell my sister was just looking for an excuse to get out of visiting the Braunmanns. "And we'll discuss it."
Fred cocked an eyebrow at her, but Charlie shrugged. "Sounds good; let's do that." He let out his loud, sharp whistle and waved his arm at the stragglers. At the very least, Lily and Helena would recognize his "Follow Me" signal and pass the information on to the others. Meanwhile, the four of us headed around to the bracken.
"We were thinking about heading over to see some friends of ours," Charlie started to explain, but Cassandra hastened to add, "Nobody high-profile, and they aren't really our friends, per se, they're more like..." she faltered at the look Charlie gave her, and censored herself. "I've never set foot on that farm more than twice in my whole life," she continued as if the fact was some mark of her own merit. Cassandra was an Elliot to the core: all about pedigree.
"I don't know if we should give you a medal or feel sorry for you, Cassie!" Lily had caught her comment as the remainder of our group rode up. I could see the distinct blush on Helena's face, though she tried to hide it by keeping her head tucked and fiddling with her reins.
Cassandra glared at Lily, but Charlie began informing everyone else of the plan as they gathered around. Adoniram held the reins of Sofia's horse as she slid from it gratefully. She grimaced and rubbed her aching thighs.
"Well," Charlie began, "Out yonder is Clover Hill Farm." He pointed to the fence. "A few of us were fixing to pay the residents a visit, but those who don't want to don't have to." He glanced significantly in Cassandra's direction, who nodded her approval. Sofia raised her hand with a chuckle, "As much as I would enjoy meeting such lovely people, I'm sure, I just don't think I'm in any shape to do any more riding!"
"I'll tell you what," Walter proposed, "Dierdre and I can ride back to the ranch and get a car for those who don't feel like riding all the way back, and y'all can leave your horses here and walk to the road to wait for us."
Sofia smiled at them, "You would do that for us?" she asked.
"Of course!" Dierdre exclaimed, "I'm in only slightly better shape than you in the fact that I'd probably make it back to the ranch; as sore as I am, I can't imagine how you must feel!"
"Thanks, Dad," Cassandra nodded mildly.
"Yes!" Sofia cried emphatically, "Thank you so much!"
"Honey," Adoniram walked his horse forward, "Do you mind if I go back with them? Then the two of us could ride together in the car."
"Are you sure you wouldn't mind?" Sofia asked.
Adoniram shrugged, "It would be no trouble at all." He turned back to Walt. "I'd like to come with you, if that's all right."
Walt nodded, "Shouldn't be any trouble."
Walt and Dierdre left with Adoniram, and Charlie stood, "Well," he sighed, "The farm's only a short ways from here. Shall we go?"
"Sure," Helena responded, trying not to seem overeager, even though everyone knew she probably was.
Cassandra sniffed, "Sofia and I will wait here," she stated.
Sofia glanced at her, "Oh, I'm sure we'll have time to go over for a quick visit, won't we?" she asked.
Charlie mounted Sarge again, "You'll have time, but it would involve more riding."
Sofia shook her head, "Oh, well, in that case, I'll stay here with Cassandra."
"What are you going to do, Meredith?" Lily asked.
As much as I didn't want to appear that I disliked the Braunmanns as much as Cassandra did, there was also the issue that Fred would be there, too. Would he attach himself to Helena like everybody wanted, just to test Chuck's mettle? Did I want to be the odd one in the group?
Cassandra saved me the bother of answering, "She'll stay with us, I think," my sister answered. "It will work better that way, I think." She gave Charlie a meaningful look.
Charlie shrugged, "Is that okay with you, Meredith?"
"It's fine," I replied with a shrug.
"All right," Charlie raised his voice like a wrangler. "Move 'em out!" The four of them rode to the fence and out of sight of the trees.
After about five minutes of waiting with still no sign of the car, Cassandra began to fidget.
"It's so hot out here!" she whined.
"Come around to the other side of the tree, Cassandra," Sofia offered. "I'm sure there is better shade there."
Cassandra followed her, but twenty seconds later, she cried, "You can't see the road from here!"
They moved back to the front of the tree. Cassandra waited, pacing with agitation as she searched in vain for the most comfortable seat.
"I think I should be quite comfortable with a saddle spread on the ground to sit on!" She eyed me suggestively. "Meredith, would you help me take Brownie's saddle off?"
I had just begun to get comfortable in my own little nook in the tree roots, but I got up and took down the saddle for her. She settled on it, and I returned to the tree.
Five minutes later, my sister was up again, peering anxiously at the road.
"Honestly!" she muttered, "How long does it take to ride out and drive back?"
Sofia, rather than be put off by my sister's spoiled behavior, sought to accommodate her.
"Look," she said, "There's a thicket right next to the road. There will be plenty of shade there, and we can see the car right away."
Cassandra liked this idea and at once stood and grabbed her saddle.
"What about the horses?" I reminded them, for the seven mounts still stood by the tree.
Cassandra waved her hand, "You wouldn't mind staying with them, would you, Meredith?"
Sofia gave me a sympathetic look as the two of them waltzed away toward the thicket.
I sat there alone with the six horses. Five minutes trudged by…ten…fifteen…
At that point, I had to face the facts: sitting there with a half-dozen horses while my sister and her friend waited by the road, and the rest of my friends (and ex-friend) and family were visiting acquaintances just a short distance away. The horses would be fine; there was no reason I should have to sit there as if I was Cassandra and hated the Braunmanns. I had the will to choose; what reason did I have to choose not to?
I saw the cloud of dust that heralded the return of the Mangroves, Adoniram, and the car. Perhaps I could head out to the farm to join those people after my sister and Sofia left. I heard voices behind me, coming from behind the fence, and I saw Charlie approach from the direction of Clover Hill Farm. Behind him came Helena and Chuck with their arms around each other—and Fred and Lily, the latter chattering away as they walked hand-in-hand from the farm.
Something in my gut wrenched, but only softly. I was moderately practiced in emotionally detaching from Fred; I couldn’t help noticing that seeing him enjoying Lily’s company so much, and looking at her the way he used to look at me made me slightly uncomfortable. As obvious as it was that we were not the item we once were, I still could not face him, not yet. I decided just then that I would join Cassandra and Sofia at the thicket. I climbed on Painter and, after bearing with her customary prancing and pulling at the reins, I guided her in the general direction of the thicket.
I arrived at the thicket almost the same time as the car. I waved at Walt in the front seat, and he honked the horn in acknowledgement.
That set Painter off. She whinnied, she lurched beneath me, and all of a sudden, I felt like I was astride a ballistic missile. Back and forth and around in circles she bucked. By this time, I was pretty sure I had everyone’s attention, because I was vaguely aware of Cassandra’s shrill cries, “Don’t let go! Hold on, Meredith! Oh, you’re going to die!”
I couldn’t see her, and I couldn’t see Charlie as I heard him yell, “Let go of the reins, Mer! Jump off! Don’t stay on!”
Their yells were mixed in with everyone else’s, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t do a thing. My hands gripped the reins, my elbows locked in the bent position, and all my muscles tensed as my upper body was jostled back and forth on top of the frenzied horse. When she couldn’t be rid of me that way, Painter bolted.
Painter ran as fast as she could in wide, sweeping curves over the terrain, not blisteringly fast, but I still could not breathe as her pounding steps jarred the breath from my body. I could hear Charlie hollering still, as he tried to ride after me, but Painter was faster and younger than Sarge, and he soon fell out of earshot. I couldn't move, and the world moved too fast for any sight to register. I was going to die.
I had often wondered what my death would be like. Lately I had considered that it might just be in a nursing home, just as I place the last stitches on my hundredth doily, I would die with the needle in my hands. Probably at no time had it ever entered my mind that "fainting on the back of a spooked horse, falling off and breaking my neck" was even an option. Yet here I was, blind, mute, paralyzed, and unable to help myself.
Through the fog, the sound of my name reached my ears; was it Charlie?
The voice was familiar...but it wasn't family.
"Meredith!" Fred Winston called to me calmly as he reined his horse to follow Painter in her mad dash to Purgatory. "Grab my arm!"
"I c—I ca..." The words wouldn't even come out of my mouth. My elbows clenched into my sides. I couldn't stretch my arms forward for fear of what Painter might do with free rein, nor could I pull back any further. Fred's horse was panting hard, and I didn't doubt that Painter was too, but that horn had scared her so bad, it felt as if she would go for another half-hour before she dropped from exhaustion—and then where would I be?
"Meredith." Hearing Fred's steady voice made me feel calmer already. "Remember horsemanship at Upton? It's just like the Indian Switch. You know what to do."
Indeed I did; my mind traveled back to those days.
Fred and I were a team, and nearly unbeatable. A competitive two-rider team would have one rider on the ground or sometimes up on a platform, and the other on a horse. The one on the horse had to complete a circuit of the barrels or poles around the arena, in addition to picking up their partner, a move called the Indian Switch. They called it that because the stunt was one used by raiding Indians in the Wild West: either swing up from the ground or jump from above, perfectly timed to land behind the rider and throw him off (the "Switch" part). Typically I was the rider on our team, while Fred had the mental calibrations of a physics professor and the innate instinct to time his jumps perfectly.
Now, with Painter running helter-skelter beneath me, those two simple words sent the techniques snapping together in my brain, and quite suddenly I was in control of the mare again. There was no way I could slow her down, but at least the practice of so long ago enabled me to semiconsciously focus on steering her. Fred brought his horse right alongside Painter on the left, just like the old days.
"Ready?" he asked me. "Go!"
I was still in a blue funk when I felt his left hand clasp the reins at about the same time his body landed behind mine and I automatically scooted forward in the saddle for him as his right arm gripped my flagging body around the waist and his left hand gave Painter's reins a firm, no-nonsense jerk, which the smart (albeit jumpy) horse knew better than to ignore. She pulled up right away and gradually came to a stop, but as I felt Fred's strong hands guiding my right leg over to the left side where Charlie waited to catch me, I felt my heart still racing full-tilt.
Painter whinnied and began stamping again, and I flinched at the sound, almost cowering in my slowly-fading stupor, so Fred slipped off and let her run away.
Charlie kept his arms around me till I could look up to him and tell him I was okay.
I sobbed till I could finally relax just enough to catch my breath and gasp, "I'm... I'm fi—I'm fine," but everybody (myself included) knew that, after what I'd just been through, I was far from fine.
We all stood in awkward silence till Adoniram clapped Fred on the shoulder. "That was some great riding there, Tex! Whoo, boy!"
"I agree," Sofia chimed in, "If it wasn't for you, who knows what could have happened to poor Meredith!"
Dierdre sidled over to me. "Walt and I are taking Sofia and Cassandra back to the ranch in the car," she whispered to me discreetly, "Do you want to ride with us? There's one more open seat."
The fact that the car was the thing that set Painter off so badly, coupled with the thought of riding between Cassandra and my ex-boyfriend's sister all the way back to the ranch house made the offer kind, but wholly unappealing.
"I think I just need some time by myself," I told Dierdre, "So I want to ride—except," I directed the last part of my comment at Charlie, "I don't have a horse."
"What's going to happen to Painter?" Lily asked.
Charlie shrugged like he wasn't worried about it. "She'll probably head straight for the barn now that she has no rider. I wouldn't be surprised if she was there now."
"Did you want to ride back, honey?" Sofia inquired. Patting my hand, she offered, "You can ride my horse, since I'll be in the car."
"Thank you," I responded, and Charlie led Sofia's mare to me and helped me into the saddle.
"We'll all meet back at the house in a few hours," he said, handing me the reins. "It doesn't look like Lil and Helena want to leave just yet."
"Okay," I said, "I'll be there." I clucked my tongue and pulled the reins, grateful for the gentle trot the mare took after my wild ride.
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