January 4, 2023
Grace found Skye in her studio. She brought Charles the beagle along, who had spent most of the last two weeks living with the boss. Grace assumed the introduction would go well. Skye hadn't met a dog she didn't like yet. But Skye was not the problem. Charles had bonded to Grace. Pretty much from the moment they met. Even living in the main house, Charles was simply passing the days and moments waiting to be with Grace.
"Whatcha workin on?" Grace asked.
Skye let out a heavy sigh.
"Nothing. I'm stuck. I'm...I'm...stuck. I feel...cluttered up. I really wan the stuff I've already done to sell."
"Well, we aren't very aggressive with the marketing" Grace said. "Are you wanting to sell this piece?"
Grace looked at the smallest of Skye's paintings, done on canvas with watercolor pencils and a water wash.
"Yes. But I think I priced it too high because it's my favorite."
"Mine too" Grace said. "That's why I don't think you should sell it. This was your first ever piece, plein air no less! Carried around on horseback even. We should figure out how to hang it somewhere. So that problem is solved. Let's move on to the next piece."
They stood next before the trio of terra cotta deer that Skye had painted, symbolically, to be a part of the landscape.
"The deer. I love them too. But for sure I want to sell them" Skye said.
"Okay. Well, maybe we just aren't marketing them right."
"Right. How to market them. Hummmm..." Skye's thoughts trailed off...
"This is another piece I love" Grace said. She stood before the rather larger forest night sky in deep blue. "Maybe we should hang this in the arena. Then it would be out of your way. If it sells, great, if not, at least it will be on display."
Then they came to the golden horse in the night sky. "I can't stand this one" Skye said. "It just needs to go away."
"Then give it away."
"What if no one wants it? How awful would that be?" Skye wrinkled up her face.
"Somebody will take it off of your hands. Tell them the story about the bear teeth marks on the back side. And offer free shipping."
Charles meanwhile had finally wandered a few feet away from Grace.
"Oh look" Skye said. "Charles got brave. He seems to like the deer."
January 7, evening
The light was fading quickly. The pair of grulla horses, built so much like Petrichor and similarly gentle, trotted around the arena in the sun's final glory. Grace seemed a little quiet.
"Let's see if we can get some good pictures of them" Grace said, but her voice lacked enthusiasm.
The two horses were nearly identical. Skye looked at Grace, seeking an answer without asking. It was obvious Grace wasn't quite herself. Grace pointed with her face toward the slightly lighter colored of the two horses.
"The boss is thinking of selling this one." Both Grace's tone and her expression indicated her displeasure with the idea.
Skye didn't know what to say. She wanted to keep all the horses. Forever.
As the sun's last rays lit the landscape, the girls took the pinto sport horse out into the arena, without his paso fino sidekick. He seemed slightly unsure of himself, but he looked stunning in warm light just the same.
The air had a damp chill. Back inside, Skye donned her new favorite poncho, and showed Grace some leather samples for her saddles that the boss had given her.
There was a light golden deer hide, a white leather, Grace was unsure what its origin was, and a piece of leather that was somewhat reminiscent of suede and a reddish color.
Charles the beagle, meanwhile, had met the rest of the pack. He remained focused on Grace, for the most part politely ignoring everyone else.
"I wish it was a lighter color" Grace said, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite." She took the bit of deerskin and held it around various parts of the women's saddle.
"The white would be gorgeous too, and more fitting if this is just going to be a parade saddle. Is this just going to be parade saddle?"
Skye shrugged. "I...I don't know. I don't think so. How often are we in parades aside from dressing up the ranch horses and leading them around?"
Grace laughed. "Good point."
Grace drew her soft blanket around her shoulders. Immediately her bed began to fill with dogs. Charles was hoping to be one of them.
"I'm not sure bed sharing is going to be a hit right out of the gate" Grace mused.
Skye scooped Charles up. " He can sleep with me tonight. I know he'd rather be with you, but he'll survive."
The rain hadn't yet begun but it was cool and damp and the cloud cover was building. They would get more rain, perhaps even snow. Wonderful, blessed, magical, life-giving water. Skye heaved the big watercolor pad up onto the table.
"I probably shouldn't have used the good paper for sketching" she said, "but I just love how it feels."
"You're forgiven" Grace said. "Use the good paper whenever you want to. Better by far than not using it. Calves?"
"Yes" Skye replied.
"They have really weird bodies" Skye lamented. "They don't really bend like a horse. And they have a strange chest shape and really bizarre hips." Skye was right. Cattle were weird shaped creatures. Nothing like a horse.
Grace had an idea.
It seemed like a good idea anyway. By the time they had found Mojo and messed around with draft horse halters trying to find one to fit Toro Tor Taxi's great big head, the wind had come up, and the rain began. The gusts of wind were so strong they found themselves leaning on the bull to keep their balance. Mojo was not impressed with the plan. The bull did not seem to mind.
In the arena, the Argentine Criollo bull moved about for five or perhaps ten minutes at the most before settling down.
"Can you get him to stay real close to the wall?" Skye asked. "I want to see if I can ride him. Just for a second."
Grace feigned a Scottish accent.
"Have ye lost yer mind woman? In case you haven't noticed, that's not a horse. It's got horns and all."
"He'd probably be fine" Skye answered. "Besides. All this rain. We could use a little excitement around here."
"You just fell off a pony not too long ago, wasn't that enough?"
"That was last year already!"
"I don't know" Grace said. "I think I'd stick to trying to draw him."
A light mist covered the forest. The ranch horses were restless, looking out into the shrouded woods, vocalizing. The girls knew it probably meant there were wild horses out there somewhere.
They decided to go looking, on foot, taking their cues from the ranch horses about which direction to go. Quietly, they headed toward Mustang Rock. Every now and then they would catch a sound. And then rather suddenly there they were. The color guard, Skye called them. Crazy's small but very flashy harem.
"Can they see us?" Grace whispered, not wanting to move too much.
Crazy appeared just then, on a rocky ridge, above his mares and foal.
"I would say yes, Crazy just saw us" Skye whispered.
He was the smallest of all the wild stallions, and the one Grace was a little leery of. He was all stallion and all wild.
"If he comes any too much closer, be ready to jump up and look big" Grace said softly.
"Or run away screaming..." Skye replied.
Crazy came no closer. He made it clear he didn't like company. But then he turned his back to the girls and rejoined his herd as the mist became a light rain.
It was a brief but exciting encounter and Skye was in no mood to go home.
"Let's go see the creek" she said. Grace agreed. Their path was riddled with pools of water. Some of them could be skirted. Others not.
"Whoop!" Skye slipped into the water. It was cold. Not quite snow melt cold, but definitely not warm.
They made their way to a tributary of Chilao Creek that ran through the fire station and then down past Mustang Rock and into Coyote Canyon. The sound of the water. Soothing and alive and mesmerizing.
Then home again. The ground was too saturated for riding and the rain and mist was cold. The girls bought horses down to the arena. They were enamored with the new Amazigh stallion.
He seemed hesitant to move around much, so Grace went about with him to help loosen him up.
"Maybe it's the blanket" Skye said.
"Maybe" Grace answered.
The next horse Grace brought down was the pinto Morgan cross. "Moose!" Skye had a fondness for the big, flashy boy. He was kind and easy going, collected and strong.
Jesse needed no encouragement. The little palomino mustang was high energy and the chance to stretch out in the area was welcome.
Dream Boat was next, the golden Friesian horse. Grace seemed to have a thing for the golden horses, and they for her.
The big bay Akhal Teke was next. They had not spent too much time with him since his arrival. He was spectacular, agile, eating up the ground with his big stride.
"What's his name?" Skye asked.
"Aahhh, his name...I can't remember."
"It should have something to do with beauty and speed" Skye said.
The final horse of the afternoon was an appaloosa. yet another gleaming golden blaze of beauty. Most of the horses had a registered name and a stable name. But there were getting to be a lot of horses. "Don't ask me his name." Grace offered, "No matter what it is, it wouldn't do him justice."
Grace had saddles and saddle stands filling the room. She studied one that was very ornate and highly unusual. And blue. Skye had never seen anything like it.
"What is it?"
"It's either for a Peruvian Paso or a Paso Fino. I can't remember which" Grace said. "Robbie Ramirez helped me identify it. I was thinking of trying it on Anamar. He has such a high neck and a short back."
Skye rested a hand on the western saddle by Fiona Covert. Which was much too long for Anamar and slightly too wide...but Skye loved the saddle.
"It says "AMAN" Grace noted, referring to the blue saddle. "I don't know who that is. I thought the saddle was by Alice Malcolm, but then the initials don't make sense. Anyway. We'll see if it fits tomorrow."
"So" Skye said, "do you have your NaMoPaiMo International Painting Party pony picked?"
Grace sighed. "Nope. Not a clue. How about you?"
The wind howled outside, making every rivulet and slow stream of water freeze, driving the temperature down to 20 degrees. It was definitely a good day to have an enclosed arena, but it was still chilly inside, and Grace rather wished she'd brought her coat.
Skye was running back and forth enough to build some body heat. There was no saddle pad for the blue saddle, and the english saddle pad they had was too small, so Skye grabbed a bareback pad, but the square saddle skirts reached beyond the pad.
"It's okay" Skye said. "I'll get a blanket."
Anamar followed Skye for inside the arena with interest. Skye dashed off to get a blanket. This was going to be another mash-up of tack that was never meant to go together.
Skye returned in short order. "Think it'll work?"
The girls tried. The blue saddle didn't fit him. The length of it was good, but it was too wide, and it needed a custom saddle pad. No amount of tightening the cinch would get it to sit securely.
"Oh well" Grace said. "We tried. Let's take it off."
The saddle didn't work, but the stallion was already bridled, and expecting to be ridden.
"Give me a leg up" Grace said.
"That's the spirit" Skye teased.
Grace preferred a saddle. She could ride without one, but unlike Skye, she'd learned to ride in a saddle and it was her preference. Beneath her, the stallion danced.
"His back is round but narrow even though his ribs are well sprung" Grace said. "Reminds me of riding Lightning for the first time. All those gaits I wasn't used to and no saddle and he was green broke..."
Her voice trailed off as they moved around the arena. He was not gaited, but there was a swiftness to his footfalls. He was gathered and ready to move out. Grace was careful not to give him a reason to prove his speed or agility.
"He's a ton of horse. I feel like he could do dressage. I definitely want to put a saddle on him. I don't care what kind of saddle, just one that fits."
January 29, 4:30 PM
Grace and Baron cut through the school on their way back up the hill to the ranch. As Grace closed the door she heard a noise. Baron heard it too. At first she thought perhaps it was the door squeaking, but they heard it two more times. Baron headed toward the sound, coming from the other side of the driveway to the south, just out of sight, in or perhaps just beyond the seasonal stream that last week still gurgled with water. It sounded like a kitten. A big kitten. Or perhaps a bobcat. Then there was another noise, coming from the north. Loud, like a short blast from the whistle of a yard duty teacher, part whistle, part chirp. Baron heard it but registered no reaction. Grace knew the sound from the videos they'd watched. it was a mountain lion. And likely so was the sound Baron was keyed into. A youngster. Grace slammed the school door firmly shut, making as much noise as she could with it; called Baron out, reached for his collar, realized he was not wearing one. They made their way back to the house, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, but knowing they were not alone.
She relayed the story of the cougar sounds to Skye as her hands examined the men's saddle tree.
"Maybe that's why there haven't been too many coyotes around" Skye mused, secretly glad that Grace's story was all about sounds and not sightings.
"I wanted to take Anamar to the indoor arena while it was still light out" Grace said, "but maybe tonight isn't a good night to do it."
"Did you find a saddle to fit him?"
"Grace smiled. "Maybe. I was thinking maybe this one."
"Oh!!! That's a great idea!"
"Well, since it's your saddle tree, I'm glad you think it's a good idea."
"Can we try it on him in the barn?"
"We could, I suppose."
"Do you think it's safe for us to walk to the barn?"
"I think so. I think we should leave the dogs behind though. If they get away from us and go after the cat, or its scent, it could be bad."
"Let me get my poncho" Skye said. "I look much bigger in my poncho."
In the barn, Anamar danced about but allowed the girls to rest the saddle tree, and another mismatched blanket, on his back.
"The length of the tree is good" Grace said, "but it's too wide."
"Can it be shaped? With heat maybe?"
"I don't know. We'll have to ask Maedb Esposito. She made the saddle tree. This is her design, after studying Native American saddle trees from the plains."
it was early Monday morning. The forest was silent. The snow had come in the wee hours of morning, a fine powder, so light, so magical, and deep. The girls stood for a while in silence, until Skye spoke.
"We should go look and see if we can find any tracks. Mountain lion tracks."
"I need to get my coat if we're going to stay out much longer" Grace responded.
They found fresh tracks right away, but they were coyote tracks. The coyotes had come through probably not long before them. Two of them, working as a team, looking to scare up or scrape up breakfast.
The girls crossed over the coyote tracks and headed up the draw. They knew where they were, and they knew they would be on more or less open ground the way they were headed. But the deep snow made everything look so different. And it made the going difficult. Skye donned the grey and white poncho, hoping to harmonize with the landscape. The wind started to pick up and clouds moved swiftly across the sky.
And then, suddenly, soundlessly, Petrichor's band was in front of them, coming down the draw toward them.
They had encountered each other this way enough times now that the pale mare did not immediately flee. She moved away, picking her footing carefully.
While the mares and foals moved away, Petrichor drew closer. A light snow began to fall and the wind blew flurries of powder about.
Petrichor took several more steps toward the girls. But the draw was not completely smooth beneath the snow, and a deep drift lay between them. He stopped before the drift, his attention torn between Grace and his herd.
"He looks really good" Skye said in a soft voice. When the sun broke through the cloud cover for a moment, Petrichor glowed golden against the snow.
He did not linger long, making his way back to the mares and foals who waited for him a short distance away.
Although the cloud layer was thin, waves of snow washed over the mountains. The girls had only gone a few steps forward when three more horses came into view. Highlander and his band.
A new mare. Highlander had a second mare now. The girls watched in silence. She was pale in color. Palomino? Grey? They couldn't tell. She was pretty.
The dun mare was as full of herself as ever.
Grace took a step forward to get a better look, and slipped into a hole. Highlander and the mares turned abruptly.
"Are you all right?"
Grace laughed. "Yeah, I'm fine. So much for stealth."
The mares continued in the direction that Petrichor and his band had gone. Highlander made sure the girls did not follow. The clouds danced across the sky, creating ever changing light.
The horses headed back into the cover of the scrub, Highlander and his mares following Petrichor's band at a respectful distance. It was safer for both small bands to be in close proximity to each other, and the stallions had obviously worked out their boundaries with regard to the mares. After they passed, Skye noticed something just beyond the horse-trampled snow. tracks that were not coyote, or human, or horse. They were made while the snow was still falling, and so they were impossible to distinguish with certainty. She could say that whatever animal it was, it was walking, slow and deliberate, and like the coyotes, searching through the brush.
Grace and Skye studied the tracks for a good while.
"This is where the sound came from" Grace said, "the shrill, chirping whistle. Sounded for all the world like a human noise. Baron didn't recognize it at all."
Sometimes there were one set of tracks, sometimes two sets. There was too much new snow...and Skye could not blow the new accumulation off of the original print to get a better look...to say for sure what they were looking at. But its legs were long enough that it went through deep snow without leaving a drag mark. It had four legs, and it was large. That is all they could say for sure.
The wind picked up, the sky cleared, and the cold air nipped at the girls. They headed home, leaving the land and its mysteries for another day.