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Authors: A. Destiny

Sunset Ranch

BOOK: Sunset Ranch
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Chapter
One

I hitched my backpack higher
onto my shoulders and brushed back my hair, which already felt ickily greasy. My flight out of Cincinnati had left at six a.m., so I'd skipped a shower. My guitar case seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, and I was beginning to question the wisdom of hauling it all the way out here. As I made my way toward the baggage claim through the cavernous, glass-ceilinged terminal, I tried not to stare as men in actual cowboy hats and boots strode by. Air force soldiers in sleek navy uniforms shouldered big blue duffels. Families with long zippered ski bags struggled past. Out the huge picture windows the mountains hulked, white and blue-gray against an impossibly azure sky. I shivered a little and grinned to myself—this was really Colorado. I was really here, thousands of miles from home, for three months. I wanted to sing my way down the terminal.

I followed the river of people out of the main terminal, stepped onto a down escalator, followed a long underground passage to an up escalator, then allowed myself to be swept along to another up escalator. I was wondering just how much longer I'd be trailing around this airport when the escalator deposited me in front of several baggage carousels.

I hurried over to the nearest one and scanned the conveyor belt for my khaki-green army surplus duffel. Mom had been so proud when she found it for only five dollars at the thrift store. There it was, riding around and around, looking like an abandoned stuffed animal in the midst of all the black rolling suitcases surrounding it. I elbowed through a scrum of random passengers and reached forward, managing to snag the strap just as the bag moved past. Puffing slightly, I dragged it toward me and let it thump to the floor.

“Hey, thanks for getting my bag,” someone said in a southern drawl.

I looked up into the clearest blue eyes I'd ever seen.

A tall boy about my own age was standing beside me. He had a backpack too, and he wore a gray T-shirt that read
PACIFIC FOOD CO-OP
and frayed khaki shorts with sandals. His black hair fell over his forehead, and his eyes were startlingly light against his tanned skin. He smiled, showing sparkling white teeth. A leather band circled one broad wrist and a narrow silver chain glinted under the collar of his T-shirt.

I closed my mouth, which had fallen open slightly, and cleared my throat. “Ah, sorry. This is my bag.” I tried to sound cute and casual, though I think it came out sounding more strained and weird.

He didn't even blink. “It was probably a long flight, huh? You're just a little confused.” He flashed me another grin and looped his hand under the strap. “Anyway, like I said, thanks for getting it for me. See you around.”

“Hey!” It came out louder than I intended, and several people turned to look. “Excuse me! I don't know who you are, but that's
my
bag. Put it down. Please.”

The boy studied the duffel, looked at me for such a long moment that I flushed, then looked back at the duffel again. A slow grin spread across his face. “Let's see. My bag was my dad's, from the army. So
if
you're telling the truth, why would you have the same kind of bag? Unless you're in the army yourself.” He was teasing me—that much was clear. I wondered if my neck was going all splotchy.

“I'm not in the army. My mom got it at the army surplus store. Okay?” I swiped at the bag, but he slid it back out of my reach and shook his head.

“No way. I can spot a soldier a mile away. What's your rank?”

I had to laugh. “I'm not exactly the military type—can't you tell?”

He let his gaze slowly wander from my feet to my head. “No way. You're tough. I mean, look at those muscles.” He squeezed my upper arm, and my pulse shot up. “Come on, what do you bench?”

I rolled my eyes. “Very funny. Look, can I
please
have my bag?”

“Hmm. I say it's mine; you say it's yours. What should we do?” His eyes crinkled up at the edges, and a dimple appeared in his left cheek as his smile deepened. For one electric instant we looked into each other's eyes. Then I cut my gaze away, thoroughly rattled.

“Here.” I grabbed the zipper and pulled. The bag fell open, revealing several pairs of purple and pink underwear lying on the top of a mound of jeans and T-shirts.
Oops.

The boy laughed out loud, the sound echoing in the big room. “Hey, I can't argue with that. Are those standard military issue?”

My cheeks flamed. Of course I'd forgotten the underwear was on the top. I struggled with the zipper, but a pair of the underwear was caught in the teeth. Now I had no desire for anything but to get away from this person as fast as I could. “You're funny, I can see that. Hilarious, actually.” I yanked at the zipper again.

“It's one of my special talents. Here, let me.” The boy pulled hard at the zipper and raked it up to the top.

I exhaled. “Thanks. Anyway. Nice to meet you.” A little trickle of sweat ran down my chest, but at least my underwear was safely out of sight again. Without looking at him, I grabbed my bag and marched away toward the glass exit doors.

“Hey, what's your name?” he called after me.

“Private McKinley,” I yelled back over my shoulder. Then, just as I turned around again—
bam
.
I slammed into the clear glass door.

“Ooh,” I moaned, holding my forehead, letting my bag slide from my shoulder. Something dripped from my fingers, and I looked down to see bright blood splotching the floor at my feet.

“Was that on purpose, Private McKinley?” The guy was suddenly beside me, prying my fingers from my numb face. He smelled like peppermint gum. “Because it's cool about the suitcase and all. You don't have to bleed to make a point.”

“I'm fine,” I managed, trying to wipe my face but succeeding only in smearing the blood. “Okay? Thanks for your help. This happens to me all the time.”

“Nice. Have you ever considered a helmet?” The guy was waving at one of the airport security guards, who came hurrying over.

“Oh now, miss, why don't you come with me to first aid?” The burly man was leaning over me. Then a ticket agent appeared, holding a towel.

“Poor little girl! We have to get you downstairs. . . .”

Another agent strode over. “She might need stitches. . . .”

I pressed the white towel to my brow and looked around. The boy was gone.

Chapter
Two

A half hour later I stood
at the curb just outside the terminal, army bag and guitar in hand, watching the varicolored airport vans and shuttles slide by. My right eyebrow was neatly plastered with a white butterfly bandage applied by the nice medic in the first aid office. I'd managed to get most of the blood off my face by scrubbing with paper towels in the bathroom, though some stubborn specks still remained crusted by my hairline.

I craned my neck to look down the long line of waiting vehicles. The last e-mail from the ranch had said someone would pick me up soon after my flight. Had my ride come and gone while I was getting my face patched up?

I took out my phone and thumbed through my e-mail until I found the acceptance note.

Dear Chloe,

We are pleased to offer you a position as a summer worker at the Nickel River Dude Ranch. As a stable hand, your duties will entail daily horse feeding, grooming, and turnout, assisting guests and riding instructors as needed, accompanying guests and staff on ranch outings and trail rides, cleaning and organizing tack, and other duties as assigned. Expect long days, hard work, and a lot of fun. Please bring . . .

Etc., etc.

Every Saturday since I was ten years old, I would take the number 78 bus up Springfield Pike, right on Fleming, left on Winton, fifteen minutes, staring out the window as the bus jerked and puffed past genteel houses on big wooded lots, me and all the women clutching plastic grocery bags and the men in flannel shirts bound for shifts at the lighting factory just behind the tiny, one-runway airport. The houses disappeared by the top of Fleming, replaced first by fast-food restaurants and big churches and then with garden centers and then the big red-and-white sign looming:
WINTON WOODS RIDING CENTER
and the little icons below it—a person hiking, a person in a boat, and a person on a horse.

I'd spend the whole day up there, drunk with the smell and sight of horses—the pungent hay-leather-manure scent of their fur; their big, liquid eyes; the creak and slap of leather as I tacked them up for the lessons and trail rides. I didn't even mind leading the little Shetland pony around and around in circles in the August sun, a four-year-old clutching the saddle horn and speechless with terror and delight.

I saw a rusted green pickup chugging at the curb in front of me. I stuffed my phone in my pocket and ran toward it as an auburn-haired boy in a worn plaid shirt jumped from the driver's seat. “Hey, are you Chloe?” he called.

I stopped, trying not to stare. “Yeah, hi,” I managed to reply.

His eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. That always just kills me. “Stephen. I'm your ride—and your coworker.”

Thank you. Thank you, God.

Stephen lifted my bag from my shoulder and tossed it into the bed of the truck as if it were stuffed with tissues instead of three months worth of every outfit I thought I might need. “Hey, a guitar! Do you play?”

“Just a little. I goof around on it.”

He extended a sunburned hand to help me into the truck. “What happened to your eye?”

Up close, I could see the freckles smattered across his nose and the tops of his cheeks. His tousled hair glinted red-gold with thick strands curling over the back of his collar. I was gaping, I realized. I think he did too, because his eyes met mine for a searching instant. I looked away and giggled nervously.

“Um, my eye?” I touched the butterfly with one finger. I was about to come out with some lie about tripping when I got off the plane, but something in his face stopped me. “You really want to know? I ran my face into a glass door.”

“I did that once! At an art museum. My cousin told me I left a big face print on the glass.”

We both laughed, and I climbed onto the rough, dog-hair-covered front seat of the pickup. Stuffing boiled up like popcorn from rips in the upholstery, and the footwell was scattered with a liberal assortment of hay, smashed grain, and pop cans. I exhaled and leaned back against the seat as Stephen slammed the driver's door.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, leaning over and trying to clear away a little of the debris.

“No, it's great. I love it, actually.”

He looked at me as if I'd told him I was actually the Duchess of Cambridge. “Seriously? The window doesn't even roll up. Most girls wouldn't like that.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “Maybe I'm not like most girls.”

He grinned. “Maybe . . .” He glanced toward the terminal. “By the way, we're just waiting for one other hand too.”

“Okay, no problem.” I smiled at him. “So, how long have you worked at Nickel River?”

Stephen leaned back and traced a circle around the wheel. “Three years now. My brother's the trainer there. I come out during the summers to help him. Hopefully, I'll be assistant trainer one of these days.” A shadow passed over his face, too quick for me to read.

“I've never been on a ranch before,” I confessed, watching some kind of sports team stream from the airport doors. Football, I guessed from the size of the bags. “I've just worked at this stable near my house.”

“Well, don't worry, it's not like roping cows or anything. The wranglers take care of the real cowboy stuff.” His eyes were the color of the sea glass I used to pick up on the beach in Maine. “The guy who runs it, Jack, is kind of one of those gruff cowboy types, but really nice underneath. There's about fifty horses in the herd and some goats and some random chickens. The whole place is about eight hundred acres.”

“Oh my God, that sounds amazing!” I clapped my hands together in excitement. “I can't wait to see it. Do we get to feed the goats?”

He laughed a little. “Why? Do you have a fetish about goats?”

“I love goats! We couldn't have them at my stable back home because they can get out of any fence. We used to keep one, and she kept escaping and wandering down to the main road. Once, she made it all the way to the Kroger and ate a bunch of tomatoes in the outside display before they caught her.”

Stephen guffawed. “Nice! Our nanny goat is kind of old and fat, so she's not going anywhere. But there's lots of wildlife. These black bears like to get into the trash cans, and there's a big herd of antelope you can see from this one overlook.”

“Oh, antelope! I've never seen any. Are they like deer?”

“Yeah, except prettier. I'll take you up there sometime.” He sounded casual, but the tips of his ears turned adorably pink.

“I'd like that.” We smiled at each other. Then I saw his eyes shift to something behind me. “There's the other guy.”

I turned around to see the black-haired guy from baggage claim climbing into the cab just behind me. Color zoomed up my face to my hairline. “Hi,” I croaked.

The boy shoved a green army bag identical to mine into the footwell and leaned over the front seat, extending his hand. “What's up? I'm Zach.”

“Nice to meet you, man.” Stephen shook his hand.

“I think we've already been introduced.” Zach grinned at me. “Private McKinley.”

Stephen looked puzzled. “What?”

“Nothing! Just a dumb joke.” I eyed Zach, who winked. “I'm Chloe. McKinley.”

Stephen looked from me to Zach and back again. “You guys know each other?”

“In a manner of speaking.” I pulled the stiff old seat belt across my chest. “Zach was there when I got acquainted with the glass door.”

“We had a nice chat about the military,” Zach put in from behind us.

Stephen signaled and pulled into the stream of traffic leaving the terminal. “I'm so confused.” He accelerated onto a feeder road near the highway. “By the way, it's only about half an hour to the ranch. That's like five minutes out here.”

The wind whipped through the cab as we picked up speed, and I sighed and settled back against the seat. The outlying buildings near the airport receded quickly, giving way to flat, dry land splotched with sagebrush and hillocks of yellow grass. Here and there, rickety wooden and wire fences traced their uncertain way across the landscape. And over everything the vast bulk of the mountains—cool, blue giants looming in the distance. Snow like sugar capped their tops, trailing long fingers down the ridged sides. The sun burned a hot hole in the azure sky, but the breeze raised goose bumps on my arms. I had a sense of space upon space, moving through clean, endless layers of air. If I just reached out my hand, I could touch the mountains through the windshield. They were so close—the truck bumped over a pothole and the mountains receded to their proper place. I shook my head. The altitude must be getting to me.

I inhaled deeply, and the thin, hay-scented air tingled my nose. “Cincinnati never smells like this!”

“Is that where you're from?” Stephen asked. He drove easily, one elbow cocked out the window. “I've never been there. My family's all from Denver.”

“You're not missing much. It's pretty basic suburban life.” I gazed at his profile from under my eyelashes as he drove.

“Where are you from, Zach?” Stephen asked, twisting around slightly.

“Charleston, South Carolina, born and raised,” he drawled.

So that was the accent. A Charleston boy. Images of plantation houses with swirling white steps and frostings of wrought iron rose in my mind. Hoop skirts, grits, segregation? “How come you're all the way out here? Don't they have horses closer to Charleston?”

I meant to be funny, of course, and someone could have asked me the same question, but there was only silence from the backseat. I turned around. Zach was looking fixedly out his window, plucking at the torn seat lining with one hand. I had the sense he was deliberately avoiding my gaze.

The silence stretched out until it became awkward. I cast around for something to say. “What—er—what are those rocks?” I pointed to some red giants near the side of the road.

“That's Garden of the Gods,” Stephen said. The big rocks were sticking up from stands of pine, softly rounded and smoothed as if carved by the wind. They glowed a soft red-orange in the mid­afternoon sun. “It's a great place for hiking—we go out there sometimes on our day off.”

“We sometimes go down to Red River Gorge in Kentucky to camp, but there's nothing as pretty as that. They have hoedowns every Saturday night—my dad loves those.”

“What's a hoedown?” Zach asked from the backseat. I twisted around and cast him a quick glance. He looked totally normal again, with his arm thrown across the back of the seat and one ankle crossed over his knee. Whatever weirdness there was had passed.

“It's like clogging,” I explained. Now they both looked ­confused. “You know, like tap dancing, except kind of country.” ­­I mimed twanging a banjo. “With bluegrass music.”

“Oh, right.” Stephen's brow cleared. “Like
Deliverance
.”

A tiny ping of annoyance ran through me. That's what everyone thought of when you started talking about Kentucky or West Virginia. “It's actually not just all hillbillies and moonshine down there.” It came out a little sharper than I intended.

“I'm sorry,” Stephen said right away. “That was dumb. I should know—everyone thinks all of us in Colorado are either cowboys, gold miners, or ski bums.”

“And all of us in Charleston are either hicks or slave-owning, racist snobs,” Zach put in.

I snorted. “Actually, I have to confess—I always think of cowboys when I think of Colorado and
Gone with the Wind
when I think of the South.” I covered my face with my hands in mock shame and the boys laughed. “I'm so bad.”

Stephen braked suddenly as a strange little animal toddled onto the pavement in front of us. It was covered with some kind of armorlike skin and looked like a cross between a pig and a rat.

“Armadillos. They're everywhere out here.” Stephen braked and we watched the armadillo snuffle its way across the pavement and disappear into the rough underbrush. “They crash around in the bushes and sound just like a person. It can freak you out to see this little guy wander out instead.”

We passed a shuttered gas station, then a few deerlike animals bounding in the grass. Stephen turned off the highway and onto a small side road. The asphalt unspooled before us, broken only by the dotted yellow line in the middle. We were leaving the dry sagebrush country behind, and now slender trees with soft white bark lined the road on either side—aspens, I thought. Grass grew underneath, soft as a carpet, the sun flickering through the cool leaves.

Then the aspens were behind us and waves of grass spread out all around, deep golden, russet, dark green, rustling endlessly in the wind, the colors a stark, almost jarring, contrast to the ­jewel-blue sky. I rolled down the window the rest of the way. “Is this the prairie?” That sounded very Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“I guess it used to be.” Stephen slowed. “It's ranchland now. Here we are.”

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