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Tuesday, July 6th, day 36

Blair and I had been practicing his schooling almost everyday (except Saturday). He knew how to recite his alphabet, even though he sang it to the tune of Amazing Grace, and the sounds all the letters made. I had written it out on the wall of his cave, and he could recognize most of them when I pointed to one randomly. He also knew his numbers up to five, though he couldn’t really tell which was one was which written. He already knew his shapes, but I taught him some of the more complicated ones, like parallelogram, trapezoid, pentagon, hexagon, etc, just for the fun of it. just like Cuddles, he learned really fast. And I was no qualified teacher. If we kept working really hard, who knew what we could accomplish by the end of the summer?  He could be doing algebra, the Pythagorean Theorem, and calculating the square root of pi for all I knew.

“Okay, Blair,” I said now, pacing in front of him as he drew pictures in the sand. His ability to doodle incredibly and absorb every word I said amazed me. “Since you seem to know your alphabet pretty well, I thought we could do a little bit of reading today.”

He looked scared. Patting him reassuringly on the head, I scratched a sentence in the sand. “Read this.”

Haltingly, he sounded out, “A cat sat in a big pot. The cat sat in a big pot? What are you going to do, eat it?”

“Be silent.” He giggled. “That was satisfactory, for your first time, so now let’s go to something a little more complicated.”

“In a big cup sits a red dog? Good thing Cuddles isn’t red. I’d have to hide him away. Do you have any animals, Hanuara?” his gaze was solemn.

“No. just Zac.”

“Well, at least now you know why.” We grinned at each other, though I was wincing on the inside. He was so thin. I could see all his ribs, and his arms and legs were skeletal. It was bordering on emaciated. Maybe his mother wasn’t sure how to feed him properly. Disgusted, I wondered how anybody could be that blind. If only I could talk to her without Blair finding out. I avoided any mention of his mother at all now. I didn’t think I could bear having him mad at me again. he was so precious.

“Okay,” I said, with just a smidgen less enthusiasm. “Lets take this from the top. A, B, C, D, E…”

Wednesday, July 7th, day 37

Of course, there were people more random in the world than Levi Palener. Monica Fei-Ling was a close contender. While we were all having breakfast at home for once, looking at different wedding stuff, she announced that she and Steven were going to a ranch in Tebo for the day, and if anyone wanted to come they were more than welcome.

“We just thought it’d be fun,” she explained when we all stared at her. “Everything has just been so stressful lately, and we just wanted to unwind.”

“Well, then,” said Dad, “Lets make it a family affair. Clear the chalkboard, folks, were going to the ranch in Tebo!”

Despite me and Mom’s spirited protest, Dad broke her down, so of course I had to go too. I called Araunah and asked if she wanted to come, because Lee had to work, and half an hour later we were on the road.

“I can’t believe we’re spending the day with a bunch of hillbilly ranchers on their hillbilly farm to ride a bunch of good for nothing mountain high mules,” I ranted in the back of the limo. We had put up the divider between my parents and Steven and Monica.

“Wow, that was a mouthful. Thanks for inviting me, by the way. I’ve never been on a horse before.” Araunah thoughtfully stared out the window. Little’s Island is mostly towns and cities, with maybe a shrub or a flower in between each one, but Crimson Island is so devoid of human life its basically one long prairie, interrupted only by the occasional ranch every hundred kilometres. Dad insisted we sing “cowboy” songs to pass the time, but I just stared glumly at my iPad. My internet availability had been cut off.

“This is basically the middle of nowhere,” I complained. “Can we go back now?”

Wheat, corn and barley waved lazily in the breeze. Dark ominous clouds loomed in the distance, just above the mountain range. But otherwise the sky was blue and soft-looking, and I thought about taking a trip to dreamland, just to pass the time, but thought better of it. I had company; it seemed rude to leave now.

“So, Araunah, what are you studying to be at school?”

“I’m not sure what I want to be. I thought being a chef sounds sort of cool, but honestly? Cooking for thousands every day could get a bit boring. Aunt Diana’s training me in fashion design for the fun of it.” she grinned. “If I become a designer, will you model my clothes?”

“Sure. As long there’s nothing with sequins or really big buttons.”

We passed an old wooden sign with the words Welcome to the Hamlet of Tebo written in faded letters. I took one look at it, and then around, but there was absolutely nothing there except a post office and an old gas pump that I doubted worked. “Welcome to Tebo. This really is a one-horse town.”

My first impression of the ranch was that it seemed too big to be referred to as a ranch. It was more like a villa. White-washed board fences and huge, towering buildings swept up and down gallant hills, and the paved road was practically covered in trees. explosions of flowers lead the way to a huge exercise yard, equipped with a big barn, boarded paddocks, and a classic farm-style house just a bit smaller than our mansion by the river. People wearing Stetsons and chaps cantered by, and three people had a race in nearby field. Right in front of the house was a fountain of two huge lilies.

“Nice place,” Araunah said nonchalantly. She reminded me of Lee.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Mom said. “I thought we were looking for a hillbilly reserve.” Despite myself, I was able to smile back at her.

The front door to the house banged shut, and a plump woman wearing Silver jeans and a flannel shirt rushed out, embracing Monica with fervour. “Why, howdy, stranger! Long time no see.” She smiled at her with buck teeth, but otherwise her face was lovely. “And let me guess, this is Steven, and this is your wonderful family. Well, I must say I’s right glad y’all could make it up here today. Y’all have a nice trip?”

“Guys, this is Betty Feraldson, who’s daughter I met at law school. Her husband Melvin owns the place.”

“You have a lovely home,” said my mother, oddly on edge. “It reminds me of our house on Wedding Island.”

“Why, thanks a bunches,” said Betty, taking her hand. “I’ve heard all about you, miss Sawyer Justice. Right fine work y’all does up there. My daughter Bridget can’t get enough of oglin’ ya on the ol’ TV.” Betty chuckled. “Now, are y’all ready for lunch or do you fancy a quick trip on the old pony saddle first?”

“We already ate, but thank you, Betty,” said Steven. “I’m really excited to try riding.”

“Well, come on, then! Stable’s  just over yonder in that cornfield the husband calls an exercise yard. Right modest, he is.” With an energy that seemed way beyond her years, she skipped toward the barn. The rest of us hung back a little, taking it all in, while my father got up front with Betty. He was probably gathering ideas for his next book. I wondered what it’d be like to ride a horse for some sort of saddle company or horse shampoo product. I could just imagine myself cantering through a daisy field, my long hair streaming out behind. I would be riding a black stallion, with a red saddle blanket and a polished bridle and saddle. I would wow Joe with how great of a rider I was. but that was just my fantastic imagination. In real life, horses scared the living daylights out of me.

“Oh, hey, Monica. I was wondering if you were actually going to make it out today.” From a box stall stepped a pretty auburn-haired woman just a bit older than Monica, holding a pitchfork. She smiled at Betty’s little entourage. “So you did convince them to come. Hey, y’all, I’m Bridget, Betty’s daughter. So glad you could make it.” with an extra smile for my dad and Monica, she ambled down the hallway and disappeared into a room.

Horses whinnied and banged their stalls, straining their necks to get a better look at us. “Now, I don’t know where my nephew’s wondered off to, but there are plenty hands around to help. Any you ridden a horse in your life?”

“We had horses in Alberta,” said Mom. Like that explained everything. “But a bit of help would be appreciated, yes.”

Betty cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Hans! Marty! Beth! Ramon! France! Isaac! Your assistance is required!” With an apologetic smile, she added to us, “Radio’s broke. Gotta resort to the old fashion ways now.”

I really, really didn’t want to ride, but my “assistant” Isaac was really cute, and I didn’t want to act scared in front of him. I did let him do the work, though, and stood nervously eying Pharaoh, the pinto I had been assigned. He looked back sleepily. Hesitantly, I reached out a hand for him to sniff.

“Here, like this,” said Isaac, showing me how to hold out my hand flat. He dropped a sugar mint in my palm, and Pharaoh licked it up lethargically.

“Thanks.” I slowly patted the horses nose, and then, expiring my courage, jerked my hand away when he wuffled my fingers. “You been around horses long?

“Just my whole life. I grew up in Tebo, on my brother’s palomino ranch. Been riding since I was two.”

“Tebo seems like a little town.” After he had secured the saddle, he looked at me.

“Is it? oh, you must have come in the back way. but beyond the row of trees behind the post office is the real town. They have a movie theatre and everything.” He grinned a white smile. “But you, being from the city and all, must not find that too impressive.”

“No, not really. No offence or anything.”

He gave me a boost into the saddle, and I held the reigns uncertainly. I was really high off the ground, which wouldn’t bother me if I hadn’t also been on a moving, breathing animal that may or may not listen to my commands. Everyone else was already up, and Isaac hurriedly taught me how to make the horse go, turn, stop, speed up, and back up. Then he saddled up his own horse, Hershey, with the speed of light. I didn’t dare move a muscle for fear of spooking Pharaoh, even though he didn’t seem very excitable to me. tentatively, I applied the tiniest pressure with my heels, and then a little more when nothing happened. “Come on, Pharaoh. Giddy up!”

Laughing, Monica came up beside me and took the reins. She clicked to get my horse moving, and then trotted away toward the arena. I couldn’t help noticing how different her saddle was from mine. Hers was sleek and black, and didn’t have a “horn” to hold on to. Jealous, I kicked the amateur saddle in disgust. 

With a snort, Pharaoh took off.

“Whoa! Whoa! PHARAOH!”

We were headed straight for the board fence beside the arena.

I was suddenly aware of another rider beside me. he reached out and grabbed the reins that I had dropped, shouting at the stupid horse to stop. Pharaoh flicked his ears toward him, and slowed from a flat-out gallop to a canter, and finally a walk. Breathing hard, I looked with wide eyes at the rider that had saved me.

Julius Lorenzo.

“Are you okay?” He handed me the reins with a look of sincere concern that I immediately distrusted. What was he doing here?

“Fine. Thanks.” Carefully, I scrambled out of the saddle and led the horse back toward the arena. He walked placidly beside me, as if nothing had happened. just another day of scaring the daylights out of random dudes. Nothing new, nothing to report.

Julius walked beside me the entire time, looking so tall and handsome and smug on his chestnut mare I wanted to tell him to bug off. with as much dignity as I could, I marched up to Betty, who was watching everyone in the arena, and handed her the reins. “I’m sorry, Betty, but I don’t want to ride anymore. Thank you, though, for letting me use your horse.” Pharaoh snuffled my hair, and with a squeal I flinched away. The arena was dusty and dark, and quite cool. Maybe I could kick it in the limo with the TV, assuming there was satellite out here. maybe the Feraldsons even had wireless internet. Araunah waved at me as she trotted past on a bay mare.

“Pharaoh got a little carried away.” Julius dismounted and walked toward us. With a disappointed look at me, she handed him the reins and he walked off with the horses. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath against a multitude of harsh words until I let it all out, nice and easy.

“Does he work here?” I asked, striving to make my voice easy and smooth.

“You could say that.” Betty shrugged. “He works, yeah, but I sure don’t pay him. he’s my nephew.”

He’s your nephew? That’s…interesting.”

“Yup, the only one left. Pity they were all killed in Madrid.”

Yes, what a pity, I thought, not quite ashamed by my bitterness. Who wouldn’t be bitter after dealing with him? I felt like I had lake water in my stomach.

Steven was dismounted, looking for something in the dirt, and without warning, his dark brown gelding turned around and nipped him on the bottom.

He fell on his face. “Peanut! What was that for?” I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or amused. Monica stopped just to laugh at him, and then cantered on. He found his watch, put it back in his pocket, and got back on. now frisky, Peanut kicked up his heels while Steven tried to stay on.

“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Betty called out encouragingly. “Just remember: heels down!” I tried to cover my giggle but didn’t quite succeed. My father seemed completely at ease on his iron grey horse. “Now, there’s a city cowboy if I ever did see one,” Betty commented appreciatively. “Just look at that form! He must have been some sort of champion in some other life.” She whistled low in her mouth.

I felt a little uncomfortable. I mean, sure, she was married, but that didn’t seem to matter to a lot of people nowadays. I peered at her closely, and then at my father. Maybe I was looking for a scarlet letter of some sort, or a sign that would mark him as different than he had always been. but he looked the same as he always had before the cheating. Or, before I knew about it, anyway. Trying to shrug it off, I went back to observing the riders. 

Araunah didn’t seem as experienced as everyone else, but she was still good. My mother didn’t get any further than a trot, but what Marty called posting she seemed to be doing pretty well. Steven and peanut were back on track, though Peanut still had a mischievous look in his eye. After a while, Monica said something to Betty about jumping and she looked delighted. She called for the hands again, and they brought out a bunch of bars and stands and set them up in the centre of the arena.

“Witness now an amazing never before seen feat of epic proportion,” Monica said grandly. I realized that Bridget had ridden up beside her, and they were whispering. They took off, heading straight for the jumps, and in tandem sailed over the ones positioned side-by-side. After they had finished the course, they did it again, this time even slower than before. They looked like they were lazily flying over the jumps, not even touching the ground.

“Whooooo! Go Monica, go Bridget!” said Betty, clapping her sun browned hands. The girls came to a stop in front of us, the horses bowed and they saluted with their Stetsons.

“Thank you, thank you very much!” said Bridget. I noticed that she also had a hornless saddle.

“Peanut! Whoa! Argh!” Before any of us could do anything, Steven was flying through the air, and he landed in the dirt a few feet away with a little oomph. Peanut rolled his eyes.

“Steven? Are you okay, honey?” Monica trotted over. He groaned and lifted his head.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Darn you, horse. Darn you to heck.” Stiffly, he put his foot in the stirrups to get back on again, but Peanut jerked to the side and he was sprawled in the sand again. curiously, Peanut sniffed his arm and then nipped his shoulder. He cried out and scrambled to his feet, his face red with what I was guessing was anger. Give him the old one-two, Steven. Show him who’s boss.

“Okay, here’s the thing, Peanut!” Steven said as we all stared at him, trying not to laugh. “I’m going to get on you, and you’re going to behave, and you’re going to—” but Peanut didn’t want to know what he was going to do. he tossed his fine head and stamped his hoof, and it landed right on the toe of Steven’s high-heel riding shoe.

He hopped around, wincing. Betty had been so caught up in the humour of the situation she had forgotten she was supposed to be instructing on what to do. “Give him a good jerk and tell him to stand still!” she called. “And then get on fast and prepare for take-off!”

“You don’t expect me to get on that thing again do you?” He ceased hopping to glare at Betty.

“Of course. If you fall off a horse, you gotta get back up.”

“I know. But couldn’t I get up on a different horse? Maybe in a week or so?”

“You’ve got to show him who’s boss.” I was guessing the only reason she let me quit was Pharaoh was too old to be taught who’s boss, and anyway, I had stayed on him. well, maybe not for long if Julius hadn’t stopped him, but I was sure my bruises would have healed just fine without him. they were definitely less serious than the bruises on my heart, and I was dealing with those okay. Seeing him here hadn’t really helped in that front.

But I was dealing.

With a look of determination, Steven got back on the horse, stayed on this time, and everything resumed as normal.

“Hey, Hanuara, why aren’t you riding?” Araunah stopped her horse by my fence.

“I just don’t feel like it.”

“is it because of…” her eyes flicked to the side, where I was surprised to see Julius forking hay.

“No.” but I had answered too fast. She patted my arm and trotted off. I stared at him, justifying that even though I was taking in the long lean frame of his body, I was also thinking up a multitude of names to call him directly to his face. he finished forking the hay into the wheelbarrow and someone else came and wheeled it away. Wiping his hands on his jeans, he turned and saw me looking at him. he didn’t smile, just held my gaze with an unreadable expression before walking out of the arena.

The hands had lowered the jumps until they were about six inches off the ground, and Mom approached at a trot. She neatly clipped over it, and was followed by Araunah, Steven, and everyone else. Their hands praised them and gave them commentary on how to do it better. I was getting extremely bored, so I pushed off the fence.

The day was hotter than it had been this morning, and horses grazed while lazily swatting flies. I was looking over a field that consisted entirely of foals and mares. I marvelled at how those tiny babies would grow up to be giants like Pharaoh and Peanut. They peeked curiously from behind or under their mother’s tails.

I felt a hand on the small of my back. “Hey,” Julius said, coming to stand behind me.

“Don’t touch me!” I spit, striding away. I was pleased when he sort of had to jog to keep up with my long strides.

“Hanuara, please. Let’s talk about this.”

“Are you sure that’s the only thing you want me to do? or are there other things on your mind?”

He jerked me to a stop, and again I flinched uncontrollably from his touch. “Look, Hanuara. I’m going to tell you something, and you’re going to listen closely.” His eyes bore into mine with such intensity I could taste it. before I could get lost in them like I had the first stupid time I had met him, I sucked in a breath.

“SAM!” I hollered. Julius looked at me in confusion, but then he was suddenly being pulled away from me by my body guards.

“Tell him to leave me alone.” I stood with my arms crossed. “Tell him not to bother me anymore.”

“Ya hear that, buddy?” Carl got right up in his face. “Leave the lady alone. in case that’s not clear enough for your thick head, it’s over.” They let him go, and he stumbled away.

“Thanks, guys.” They nodded at me, and then disappeared into the shadows of the nearby barn again, watching me with eagle’s eyes, but leaving me alone with my thoughts. I went back to the foals. One of them, brave beyond belief, trotted up to me and shoved his nose in my outstretched hand. I struggled not to squeal or jerk away as he snuffled me, and then brought his little face as high as he could to sniff my face. He just reached my chin.

“Hey, baby.” I dropped a kiss on his soft little nose. Squealing, he turned and galloped back to his mother. “I know exactly how you feel!” I called out to it. the only thing I could see of it were its way too long knobbly legs and the nose it poked from under his mother. His nostrils flared, and then he started suckling.

I made my way back to the arena, where Monica and Bridget were having a jumping competition. Everyone else dismounted and handed off their horses, then came to sit in the bleachers. The rules were that the first person to knock down a pole lost. To me Monica was at an unfair advantage with her sickness and all. You couldn’t tell she had been sick unless you knew her very well. sure, she looked normal, but her inner light was gone, such an obvious to me I wondered how anyone else couldn’t see it. to me she appeared to be playing through the motions of having a good time, all the while actually believing she was. Steven watched her anxiously, sitting on the very edge of his seat. They approached the first jumps, triple oxers, and went over them effortlessly. They couldn’t have been more then three feet tall. The next jumps were a little higher, though these were only single Xs. Monica’s horse faltered, but she cleared that one too. They stayed together, and finished the course. The bars were raised by two inches each.

And so it went on for three whole hours, until the bars were so high they were taller than I was. Bridget and Monica’s horses were tall, but I didn’t think they could go that high. They cleared the final jump, to the applause of the rest of us. They called it a draw.

“Good job, Bridget. I didn’t think you still had it!” They slapped each other’s backs and handed the sweaty horses to the grooms. They were just as sweaty.

“This calls for a lemonade break!” announced Betty. From behind the stands, she pulled a solid gold trophy. “You guys should flip for it. no, use this one. you know Bridget and her double-sided coins.” The coin was tossed, and Bridget was declared “the official winner of the first unofficial Feraldson ranch tandem jump-off.” we cheered.

In the house, Monica and Bridget still held their high of the competition. They chatted amiably and occasionally punched each other’s shoulders. Everyone sat around the big dining room table, including Julius, who didn’t look at me when he came in. I was just fine with that. So, lunch wasn’t awkward for me at all.

Thanks for Stopping by!

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