October 7, 2023
First light. Immediately the air began to warm. The big baroque stallion seemed focused on something. He reared up, intent, fixated on a point in the distance.
Grace thought she felt her heart stop beating. "Holy cow. Don't jump the fence."
He came back down to all fours, but his attention was forever divided between the space he was in, and the wilderness beyond. The girls looked and looked, but saw no movement, nothing stirring. Just a beautiful sort of forever spring green contrasted with the golden rabbit brush of autumn.
They turned out the Bask++ mare and her foal. She didn't seem bothered by anything in the distance. The grey Morgan. He was content to stretch his legs in the morning sunlight and relative coolness. Luna, the new mare, was similarly pleased to be out and in the space she was in.
Gunner was himself. High speed, high energy. What a glorious golden sight he was, sunlight setting his coat aglow. And then he too began looking off into the distance. There must be something.
The girls looked again. Rocks. Green grass. Lovely flowers. More rocks.
When Gunner was put back up, Grace suggested they take a ride. Skye was mounted up and ready before Grace had a saddle on Ono.
The silence was overwhelming. Complete. Nothing stirred. And then squealing, gnashing, the sound of hooves against rock. Petrichor and Highlander, fighting.
Petrichor had size on the palomino stallion. They whirled and engaged, rearing and pushing against each other, screaming and rolling their eyes, gnashing their teeth but not yet at all-out war.
Grace and Skye watched, breathless. Petrichor might have been bigger, but Highlander was bringing it on with everything he had.
And then Highlander made his move. They reared up to engage, and Highlander used his lack of height to come up under Petrichor and knock him off balance. Petrichor came down on his right side, landing on his shoulder. Highlander's momentum carried him to the ground with Petrichor, stumbling down onto his knees.
Both stallions scrambled to their feet and began to engage again. But Petrichor stopped. He pulled back. It was over. Highlander turned and trotted, victorious, to claim his prize. A new mare.
Petrichor lingered for a moment in the clearing. Grace watched from a distance. He did not appear to be limping, but there was probably a certain amount of adrenalin still in his system. He came down hard on his shoulder. Surely there would be a scar at the very least.
Soon Petrichor's own band joined him. And the two small herds began to move off...in the same general direction.
"Well" Skye exclaimed, "We got our money's worth today!"
"Yeah we did." Grace stood in the saddle, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Petrichor...to see him move, to know he was okay. He was a wild stallion, Grace told herself. Sort of wild, anyway. That's what wild stallions do.
Back at home, Grace stared toward the setting sun, listless.
Skye propped herself up on the table. Time to give her big sister a pep talk.
"Petrichor is probably fine. Maybe a little scarred up but not badly injured. He had the good sense to quit before it came to war. He's smart like that. He knows when the risks aren't worth the gains."
"And besides" Skye continued. "We can go out looking for him every morning. We can get up extra early and either search for him or get the chores done and then go search for him. Whatever you want."
Grace was slow to respond, but finally did.
"You're right. Petrichor does seem to be sort of complacent on the herd building thing. Maybe it's for the best."
When the chores were done, the girls set out. Charmer was faster by far than Jesse, and seemed to enjoy proving it. But Jesse and Grace had a secret weapon. They were a bonded team...and they could turn. They could out-turn Charmer all day long.
The high speed adventure came to a quick halt when Crazy's band appeared on the escarpment above them.
Two mares and three foals, all present and correct, and Crazy, predictably ready to stand his ground no matter the consequences.
Crazy stood between the girls and his harem as the mares and foals retreated.
"Maybe this is how you have to be if you want to keep a herd" Grace said. "Size might not matter as much as your attitude."
Crazy's herd vanished into the rocks. Search though they might, the girls did not find Grace's stallion. There was no sign of the Petrichor-Highlander bands.
The sky was just turning light. Skye surveyed her work with a sense of pride, mingled with awe. It had taken hours to bring everything together. The girls often left halters and headstalls near their respective equines, and the barn had more saddles and saddle racks in it than the tack room. But not any more.
If there was going to be a review, this surely needed to be a part of it. Grace's impact on the ranch was a lot more about building relationships and helping horses than it was about the show ring. In fact, the show ring idea had died pretty fast, since the boss was very clearly anti-modern-western-pleasure, and since Grace pretty much refused to do it anyway.
Grace came in quietly. Her silence prevailed as she surveyed the tack room.
"This is almost everything" Skye said, motioning expansively.
"There's three cinches that need repair and a black saddle pad not included. And there's two halters missing - Windy Boy and High Autumn.
"There's one broken bridle. The reins came untied and I can't fix them. I had to stack things a little, like the bareback pads under the dressage saddle. But for the most part, here it is. And this is all you. We had one english and one western saddle when you got here, and one western bridle. Some old leather halters."
Grace ran her fingers over a bosal bridle by Donna Allen. Looked down the row of halters, bosals and bridles before her. Took it all in, humbly. Most of what her eyes fell upon had been gifted to the girls, to the ranch. Finally she spoke.
"So" Skye continued, "I want to get a picture. For your review. Because this is you. This is just part of the impact you've had on this place."
Grace had trouble digesting that. It wasn't really her. It was that they were surrounded and embraced by wonderful people, most of whom they had never met.
"Okay" Grace said. "Well. Let's flip on some lights and do the picture."
The morning started out in the high 50's but it warmed quickly. By the time the girls were ready to go out looking for Petrichor, it was already getting warm. They decided to take a walk instead of a ride, staying close to the ranch, getting the dogs out, getting the black mare some gentle exercise. But they gravitated toward Mustang Rock just the same. Baron noticed something, and soon, all the dogs were looking.
Not wild horses, but Lousin and Anahit, moving rather slowly over the dry watering holes and down the rock face. The dogs were off to investigate. Grace and Skye followed. Anahit and Lousin decided to be still as the canine entourage approached.
The girls exchanged greetings and the dogs milled about and the air continued to warm.
"Where are you headed to?" Skye asked.
Lousin looked at Anahit, waiting for her to answer, then spoke up.
"To the road. Ana twisted her ankle, and it's getting a little hot for rock climbing, so we thought we'd head home."
"Oh! Well we can help with that" Skye volunteered promptly. "Let's put Ana on my mare."
Lousin beamed. "That would be wonderful. What's her name?"
Skye paused, slightly embarrassed. They'd never named her. She had a lip tattoo, but it was impossible to read, and they never did figure out who she was in her younger years.
"The Black" Skye said, saying the words in such a way that they emanated pride and significance.
Grace gave Ana a leg up onto The Black. She was standing on the downhill side of one of the tallest horses they could have thought to take for a walk, but failure was not an option, so up the child went.
"How about we go back to the ranch" Grace said, "and get the truck, and give you ladies a ride back home?"
"Yes" Anahit said, "we would so appreciate that."
They were reasonably sure The Black was just about bomb proof, but they'd never actually used her for a rescue before. She was, predictably, the perfect - if very tall - horse for the job.
Luna made the first tracks on the freshly dragged arena. The afternoon grew warm but moreover, the insects. They were thick. In October there was only a few hours of heat to deal with before the sun began to sink into the western sky, but the insects made it seem like an eternity. So into the relative relief of the indoor arena the girls escaped.
Luna was soon joined by other horses. She seemed to have a bit of friendly competition going with Dani Girl.
"We should invite Anahit and Lousin to come for a ride with us" Skye said as she watched the horses.
"Sure" Grace said. Her mind seemed to be in another place.
Cookie had the arena to herself. She enjoyed the entire length of it.
"Did the boss sell the other reining mare yet? The grey pinto I call Twitch?"
"Not yet" Grace answered. "But she is still for sale."
The heat of the day passed. Grace was forever distracted. Skye could tell.
"Does he know how lucky he is?" Skye asked as Anamar danced across the arena.
"Does he realize how lucky he is" Skye repeated. "You're the golden girl. All of your favorite stallions are golden. How did he even make the list?"
At dusk, the girls ventured out into the forest again. The sun had set and only a distant glow illuminated the landscape. There was no moon. The shadows grew ever deeper. In the tangle of rock ravines along the western edge of the ranch, there was quite a bit of commotion.
The girls strained to see what was happening. They could make out Highlander's band. And another horse. Grace caught a glimpse of Petrichor's bay mare just above them. And then Petrichor. He was keeping a bit of distance. There was a skirmish of some sort, but he wasn't in it.
The girls watched until the moonless night consumed them, and all they could see were moving shadows.
They returned as the sky lightened to find Petrichor and his band milling about on the flat. Petrichor did have scars on his shoulder, but they were superficial. They girls were out in the open, but the horses seemed preoccupied with something else.
In the rocky canyon, continuing commotion.
Highlander's dun mare was having nothing to do with this newcomer, a black mare, small and wiry.
Grace and Skye strained to see what they could. They got a glimpse of the action just as the dun mare served the unwelcome mare with her walking papers.
"I thought stallions chose mares" Skye whispered.
"Right?" Grace was pretty sure that was the way it was supposed to be. But clearly the dun mare hadn't read that memo.
Petrichor moved toward the dark mare. The bay mare held the foals close to her. The girls watched as Petrichor and the new mare became acquainted. She was definitely wild. No draft influence. And black. Really, truly black.
"I want to name her" Skye whispered.
"Black...Rose...Black Pearl...Black...black something..."
"I don't know about pearls and roses..." Grace whispered.
She was angular, heady, spicy.
"I know" Skye said quietly. "Thorn."
The sun was cresting the ridge.
"We better scamper!"
The girls made their way hastily back to the ranch, and their unfinished chores.
In the indoor arena, waiting out the heat of the day, It was hard to get Thorn and Petrichor and Highlander and the new pinto mare out of her head, but Skye was forced to focus as she lounged Hot Cocoa. Grace watched approvingly.
"Nice triangle" Grace remarked as Skye turned the big gelding in the opposite direction and had him resume the trot.
Grace was next, with the red bay Akhal Teke stallion. "What's his name again?" Skye asked as she watched the big bay on the lounge line with Grace.
"Owadan. It means...oh heck, I forget. I think it means "has no brakes'."
Something caught Owadan's eye. Grace drew him in.
The boss and the two Great Danes she'd rescued in June made their way toward the girls.
"I have succeeded at last" the boss said.
"Did you find their owners?" Skye asked.
"Well, not exactly" the boss responded. "Or not yet anyway. But I know who she is and I know who they are. The black one's name is Tosh, and the harlequin is Contessa. And their owner's name is Francis Loop Caldwell. And I have a phone number."
"Awesome!" Skye responded. And then she thought about it a bit. She'd grown rather fond of the big girls. It would be bittersweet to see them go.
October 21, dusk
The sun was just a few moments from setting.
"I think this is a good location" Grace said.
Skye looked all around.
"Looks good to me. Let's do it."
Alpine glow surrounded the girls as they set up camp. They brought no food, because evidence of bear activity was prevalent. Just enough to view the stars in relative comfort, and a place to retreat to if it got damp, which Grace was fairly certain it would not. The moon would be in the sky until about midnight.
The dogs were vigilant, and a bit unsure what was going on.
The fire was for pleasure at first, but the air cooled with autumn as the darkness deepened.
"We aren't going to see any meteors while we are standing by the fire" Grace said, "but it sure feels nice."
Skye wasn't sure she cared. It was all good. Fire. Dogs. Stars. Camping out. The moon. All good.
"Do you want your poncho?" Grace asked.
"Not yet" Skye said. " It's not really that cold right now. Do you want yours?"
Grace thought about it.
"Probably in a few minutes."
But first, they tried to get focused on the stars.
The moon was still brightening the night sky, but the air was clear. Soon the stars were more and more visible. Skye tried her best to photograph them. The air began to cool as the night wore on.
And as the moon set, a breeze came up, so Skye put away the camera. The girls focused on staying warm, and keeping the dogs close; as the evening wore on, the dogs were ever more on the alert. They saw no meteors...but the stars, and the night...it was enough.
"What are you up to over there?" Grace asked Skye, who was very focused on something in cyberspace.
"Trying to help the boss find that lady. The dog owner. Francis Loop Caldwell. And so far, I can't find a thing."
"How are you spelling her name?"
"Both ways. With an "i" and with an "e". I've found the Loop family, and they have an amazing family tree online. Financial people mostly. But no Francis or Frances yet."
"Have you tried obituaries?"
"Not specifically, although plenty of them have come up."
"Hmm. I wonder if we can get an address from the phone number. "
"Oh...I hadn't thought of that."
The wind was getting ready to make its season debut. Everyone was a little restless.
There were long spells of wind-still beauty, punctuated by unruly gusts. The full force of the wind was not expected until dusk.
Grace and Skye decided to take what time there was before the wind arrived in earnest. They hiked to the top of a hill above the fire station. From there they had an expansive view in all directions.
"I bet this place was sacred to the people who used to be here" Skye said as they picked their way along a rock outcropping.
Grace looked around. She might have been right. But there were so many places like this once you got into the back country a little bit.
"Probably this whole place was sacred to them" Grace mused.
"Yeah. Like it is to us. All of it."
The view was nothing short of amazing. But nothing stirred. They saw no horses.
Back at the ranch, the girls turned out La Barilla. Grace hadn't spent much time with him lately.
"I'll probably need to put him through all the paces before I get back on him" Grace said.
"You think? I don't know. You put a good bit of work on him. I bet you can long line him for fifteen minutes and get back in the saddle and he'll remember everything."
"I hope you're right" Grace replied.
The girls were taking in the lovely evening when they heard the bosses' excited voice, a lot of whinnying, and the thunder of hooves. It ws Owadan. He was glorious in the red light of dusk, glowing in the lengthening shadows. And he was running free. The boss was calling to him, pretending in a fashion as if she were longing him, but this was no liberty act. Somehow the stallion had gotten loose.
And then, all at once, he stopped orbiting, and headed west, into the setting sun.
Owadan's red glow vanished over the horizon.
The boss drove as far as she could. Darkness was quick to overtake the landscape. The girls hiked to the highest ridge that would give them a vantage point in the fading light. They could hear the truck, but no sound of a horse. No hooves against granite, no exalting nostril blows, no squeals from an unexpecting wild band. Just the occasional gust of wind as it played through the pines. The temperature fell. The darkness was pierced by the full moon rising. And the silence was broken over and over by the sound of the Pavement Queen, going everywhere that it was safe to go.
The girls picked up the shift before sunrise, letting the boss rest. Grace glanced at the temperature as they made their way to the truck. She wondered how the big red stallion had fared the night. It was the first cool night of the season, and Owadan wasn't dressed for it.
The wind had arrived. Ravens made their way across the pre-dawn sky. The moon set in the western sky.
The wind made the dust swirl and dance in the dawn's light. The girls would get excited, hoping that perhaps it was really the dust from flying hooves, and drive as quick as they dared to investigate...only to find swirling masses of grass, sand and pine needles. But no big red stallion.