As I watched the rain droplets streaming down the Ford truck window, I tried for the hundredth time to not replay the horrific scene in my mind.
Mom laughing with Dad and Chet as they walked out the door into the fading light. Meg and I smiling and waving as their taillights grew smaller as they drove off to visit a university in the next state over to celebrate Chet’s 18th birthday. Meg grinning and saying, “Chet’s so excited to be alone with Mom and Dad and get to check out the University! Not to mention that they get to stay overnight in a hotel!”
Two hours later, someone knocking on the door. Meg getting up from the couch where we were watching a movie and eating popcorn. I could hear her voice from the living room. “Hello? Yes… I’m Megan Breninger…”
I could hear a male voice coming from outside and relaxed, lots of guys called on Meg, nothing to worry about.
Then I heard, “There’s been an accident, ma’am… we’re sorry to have to tell you that Chet Breninger, Kayley Breninger, and a Devin Breninger…”
The rest faded out as I swirled into numbness. Four words stood out, however, “There were no survivors.”
I shook my head to clear my depressing thoughts and focused my attention to the front seat of the truck. Meg, my older sister by three years, was trying her very best to come across cheerful to our grandpa. We were to live with him on his ranch nestled in the *Laramie Mountain range*, as he was the closest relation to us. I tried to cheer up with the thought that Dad and Mom’s horses were there, but it was no use. I just decided to stay miserable.
I woke up to the rattling of the pick-up over the cattleguard. It was dark outside, yet I could faintly make out aspen and lodgepole pine lining the gravel road.
Grandpa’s voice boomed, “Well, we’re now on Ridgeback Ranch property!”
Meg gave a wan smile and tried to keep up the chipper talk, but finally stopped and stared out the window.
I sat up and watched as the Ford smoothly covered the rugged terrain, looking for the log-cabin that I would now call home.
Several twinkling yellow lights peeked at us as we rounded the bend. I took a deep breath and prepared to meet the ranch hands and Uncle Jess. It had been five years since I’d last been to Grandpa’s ranch, and I was pretty sure that a lot of things had changed.
The truck eased to a stop, and I carefully waited a moment, taking in everything. Uncle Jess, looking slightly older, came running up to the truck, followed by a caravan of ranch hands. The two-story log-cabin caught my attention next, and then the barn to the far left of the house.
“Hey! How’s it going there, Michaela!” Uncle Jess shouted as he opened the back door and grabbed me up in a bear hug.
“I’m just fine, Uncle Jess,” I managed to wheeze before he threw me up in the air and then twirled me around.
Apparently his age hadn’t dampened his ability to give murderous hugs. I still remembered those.
Meg was having a similar greeting on the other side by the other ranch-hands—without the hugging.
A short bow-legged cowboy that I remembered being called George strode over and gave me a hearty handshake.
“By George, the last time I saw you, you was knee high to a grasshopper! Now look atcha! Yer plumb taller than me in my boots!”
I inwardly cringed at his joke, but managed a small laugh.
“Yeah, I guess I have grown a lot.”
George scratched his grizzled chin and peered in the truck, “Need some hep carrying yer bags? I may be on the short side, but my arms are stronger than a Sumo wrestler!”
I nearly cringed outwardly this time, but quickly kept it in and hurriedly answered, “Uh, I think I can handle it, but thanks George.”
I didn’t really like people handling my baggage, or as George would say, “I don’t take kindly.”
I saw Meg throw a desperate glance at me from across the front of the truck and loudly said, “Hey, guys, um, could we head inside? We’re bushed from the travel.”
I could tell Meg was about to the end of her rope with putting up with people giving “consoling” words, and people pestering her with “I’m soo sorry!’s”. I knew it had taken a lot to chat with Grandpa the five-hour ride, and admired her for lasting for so long.
Immediately, everyone looked ashamed and began scrambling to do something. An English Shepherd ran up and wagged its tail at me, deep brown eyes begging me pet it.
“Who’s this, Grandpa?” I asked.
“This is Prince, the best dog I’ve had.”
I knelt down and rumpled his ears, letting his gentle tongue run over my face.
I looked up to see Meg begging me to hurry, so I got up, giving Prince one more scratch.
Meg practically ran with me to the porch and through the front door, Prince trailing on our heels. The pleasant yet strong smell of coffee greeted us. A spacious kitchen with maple cabinets and the dining room stood to the left of the door, and a living room with a fireplace and TV were to the right. A hallway led down to Uncle Jess and Grandpa’s rooms and Grandpa’s office, and to the right of the entrance of the hallway, the stairs led to the second story.
“You two will be sleeping upstairs,” Grandpa motioned to the steps.
Meg and I clambered up the stairs with suitcases in hand. Directly to the right of the top of the stairs, several comfy looking couches and recliners faced another TV, and behind the couches was a sturdy oak table with a deck of cards on it. A bookcase of games and novels stood next to the TV.
Grandpa spoke from behind us, “You can pick any room you like.”
He led us past the couches and to the left into a nice medium sized room with a double bed and computer.
“We normally use this as the guest bed, but if one of you would like to sleep in here, you’re sure welcome.”
He led us down a short wide hall and opened a door on the left again. The well lit room displayed several tables, a sewing machine, a huge closet of craft supplies, and several sturdy chairs.
“Your Grandma was a crafty woman, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. She could make anything,” Grandpa paused and stared sadly at the sewing machine, “Your mom used to spend hours sewing up costumes for herself and Jessup,” he turned away and shook his head. “Anyhow, you two are welcome to use this and any of the supplies in here any time you like.”
He gently closed the craft room door and turned to the right side of the hall and walked in. A spacious beautiful room the color of mint ice cream greeted our eyes. A queen sized bed with a light green, blue, and purple quilt peacefully rested on one side. Two large windows with clear gauze curtains stood on the east side of the room, lightning flashing. Several plants and lovely pictures decorated the rich mahogany desk that proudly awaited use. Meg looked at me pleadingly.
Grandpa choked up, “This is your mother’s room.”
It made sense. Everything about Mom was feminine and light and pretty. Every move she made had been with grace, and everything her hand had touched seemed to prosper.
Grandpa quickly strode over to a door on the north side of the room and opened it.
A bathroom the color of mahogany with a full bath and two sinks was revealed.
Grandpa led us to a door on the west side of the bathroom into a room the color of lilac. A beautiful full bedstead with a canopy rested with a lilac and bluebird colored quilt on it. The room was decorated in Victorian style, and I could immediately tell that it used to be Grandma’s room.
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone to figure out which bedrooms you’d like,” Grandpa chuckled, then walked downstairs.
Meg looked at me, “You pick first, Michaela.”
I shook my head, “No, you pick first,” before lowering my voice, “you suffered through keeping a cheerful face and chatting for five hours.”
Meg laughed, “Okay, if you insist,” she looked at me in the eyes and I knew what she would pick, “I choose Grandma’s room.”
I knew that she’d wanted Mom’s room. Not that Grandma’s room was less beautiful at all. But Mom’s room meant more symbolically to us.
I ran and gave Meg a hug, “Thank-you.”
We finished unpacking our clothes in the wooden dressers, and padded downstairs in our slippers.
Grandpa sat with his hands curled around a mug of coffee.
“So did you two decide?”
Meg and I nodded.
I spoke, “I have Mom’s room, and Meg has Grandma’s.”
He nodded and said, “Good. Now, don’t worry about what time to get up tomorrow, just relax and sleep in till you please.”
He paused and took a sip, “We’ll work out chores and all that sort of stuff tomorrow evening. Tomorrow, I just want you two to have some fun. Ride some horses, go exploring, you know. Now, you all know the ranch rules: if you go through a gate that’s closed, close it, don’t go onto private property, yahty, yahty, yahta.”
I smiled and Grandpa winked at me.
“Now skedaddle off to bed!” Grandpa boomed and pretended to spank us.
Meg and I laughed and bounded up the stairs.
I woke up to my alarm beeping and turned over and slapped it off. I pushed the green, blue and purple quilt off and jumped out of bed. It was still pitch black outside, the dark proclaiming that it would soon be the season for school. Fall came early up high in the mountains.
I neatly made the bed before pulling on a pair of faded comfy jeans and a grey hoodie. I crept into the bathroom and brushed my brown hair before closing the bathroom and my door and tiptoeing down the carpeted steps.
Several lights were on in the kitchen and in the living room, and Grandpa was sitting in his recliner, reading his Bible. Meg was sitting dressed in jeans and a maroon hoodie sipping steaming hot tea.
She smiled at me, her green eyes bright.
“Morning, Michaela,” Grandpa said without looking up from where he was reading, “I see neither you nor your sister have the capability of sleeping in?”
I laughed and said, “We’re just not late risers, Grandpa.”
Grandpa chuckled before putting his Bible down and standing up.
“Better get breakfast going,” he said as he stretched.
Instead of going into the kitchen, however, he ambled down the hall and shouted, “Jessup! Time to get up, boy! Daylight’s a’wasting, and you have three hungry people to feed!”
Uncle Jess stumbled out with his pajama’s on and mumbled, “Hold yer horses, Dad,” before shutting the door.
Grandpa chortled and turned to us, “I still see that man as a boy.”
Meg got up from her chair and began setting the table, while I got out what Grandpa said Uncle Jess would need.
Uncle Jess proved a fine cook and made us bacon, eggs, and biscuits.
Grandpa finished mopping up some egg yolk with his biscuit, then wiped his mouth and said, “So, what are your plans for today, girls?”
Meg spoke up, “I wanted to see how the ranch works, and explore the main grounds some.”
I said, “Well, I was hoping that I could take the day and ride around and see what there is to see up in the mountains.”
Grandpa nodded, “Both good ideas. Meg, I’ll have Ben give you a tour and explain things, and Michaela, I’ll have Jess make you a lunch and snack to take along.”
I was surprised, Grandpa didn’t mind me going alone?
He looked at me in amusement, “I think fifteen is old enough to set out on your own some.”
Relief and a little excitement flooded me at the same time. It would be nice to be alone, yet at the same time, this was all new.
I nodded quickly so he wouldn’t change his mind.
Grandpa looked at me, “The Ridgebacks would be a good place to go.”
Meg looked at him, “What are the Ridgebacks?”
“Well,” Uncle Jess explained, “the Ridgebacks, well, I guess the best way to explain them is that they look like a giant’s stone wall. They rise up over three hundred feet in the air and it looks almost like they were chopped, as in, the sides are straight up and down, not bumpy. And at the top of each Ridgeback, there’s a huge hill that you can see for miles around on.
“Almost like a corner section for a wall. They truly are amazing.”
Grandpa slapped the table, “Alright, enough talking, let’s get going.”
We loaded our dishes into the dishwasher, and I grabbed the sandwiches Uncle Jess had made, a slicker, my winter coat, and some gloves before pulling on my cowboy boots.
The ground, which was covered in a light frost, crunched underneath our boots as Meg and I followed Grandpa to the barn.
Prince ran to greet me, wagging his tail happily.
The comforting smell of horse reached our nostrils as Grandpa slid the barn door open.
Nickers rang in the air as five horses pranced in large stalls. Adjoining each stall, I noticed there was a small paddock for the horses to stretch their legs.
Two men in coats and cowboy hats were saddling up, while another on foot fed the remaining horses.
“Ben!” Grandpa shouted.
The young man on foot jogged over, “Yes?”
“I want you to give Meg a tour of the grounds and explain what’s going on.”
Ben nodded his head and Meg followed, none too enthused and giving Grandpa a look, to a stall.
Grandpa turned to me, “These are seven of our eleven horses,” he gestured to the ones in the stall and the two being ridden, “the rest are out on pasture, including your father’s horse. So for now, you’ll have to pick out of the ones in the stalls.”
My mind was flooded with a memory I had forgotten of when I was nine.
Chet playing with me horses, me kicking his side to go faster and Chet giving a playful buck. Mom coming in from the kitchen drying a plate.
“Next time we got to Grandpa’s ranch, I’ll let you ride my horse, Conlan.” Me jumping up and down asking when we would go next, Mom saying, “Sometime soon, hopefully.”
The words echoed in my brain. Mom had never gotten to come back, or ride her horse again.
“Well? Michaaaeeellaa? Earth to Michaela!” Grandpa was waving his hand in front of me.
“Oh, sorry,” I stuttered, shaking my head.
I looked around the stalls. Suddenly, a dark bay horse with a star and a snip caught my attention at the far end of the stall.
Grandpa saw my glance and smiled, “Conlan, your Mom’s horse.”
I saw Conlan prance eagerly and whinny at me. Grandpa was surprised. He looked at me like he was inspecting me.
“You do look a lot like your mom; Conlan probably thinks you’re her. And Meg looks a tad bit more like your dad,” Grandpa noticed.
It was true, I’d inherited more of Mom’s looks, and Meg had gotten Dad’s. Chet had been a mix of the two.
A lump formed in my throat so I quickly croaked, “How old is he?”
Grandpa replied, “Nine years old, good horse that gelding. Can be ridden without a bridle or a saddle and you couldn’t tell the difference. Your mom did a lot of work with him.”
I was about to walk up to him when Grandpa said, “I think it might be better if you ride Delwyn on your first day. We call him Wyn for short. He’s a good quiet gelding with enough spark to be interesting.”
He led me over to a shiny black with a snip on his nose. Alert brown eyes and sensitive nostrils took me in. I leaned forward and breathed into his nostrils. He gently returned the favor.
Grandpa tapped my shoulder and pointed at the tack room, “The saddle on the far right should be Wyn’s, and the snaffle bit and star concho bridle is his.”
I nodded and committed them to memory before jogging into the tack-room. It smelled of sweaty horse blankets, leather, saddle soap, and must. I inhaled deeply and turned my attention to the eleven saddles on racks.
The far right saddle was a rich brown with star conchos decorating it. A purple saddle blanket was seated under it and I picked both up and staggered out the door.
Grandpa placed one of the extra saddle stands that had been standing in the corner under my arms when I reached the stall, and I settled the saddle on it.
I jogged back inside the tack room and searched for the appropriate bridle before running back out to Grandpa.
Fortunately, Mom had made sure all of us had had opportunities to practice riding and saddling, and I didn’t need Grandpa to help.
I grabbed the bridle and slowly undid the latch to the stall before slipping in and putting my arm around Wyn’s neck.
He surrendered his head and brought it politely down to my level and graciously accepted the bit.
I led the shiny horse out and tied him to a rung attached to the pole by his stall and Grandpa fished a brush out of the tack room for me.
I blushed in embarrassment when he handed it to me, how could I have forgotten?
Grandpa just winked at me, then said, “Have fun, and be wise,” before handing me a pair of saddlebags.
I smiled at him and brushed Wyn’s clean coat.
When I put on the saddle blanket I realized at once why Wyn had a purple one. The purple looked striking on the black combined with the silver conchos.
I cinched up the saddle and tied the saddlebags and coats on before leading Wyn out of the barn through the door we had walked through.
A flutter of excitement filled my stomach as I put my boot into the stirrup and swung on.
Wyn stood firmly beneath me until I clucked, and he moved out in a swift walk.
We were facing the house, the sun breaking through the storm clouds shrouding behind it.
Grandpa walked out of the barn and came and put his hand on my knee, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to give you this walkie talkie,” he handed me a high power-looking talkie and I shoved it into my saddlebag, “Also, if you take this path that goes behind the house, it’ll lead you up to the Ridgebacks and into the Mountains.”
He slapped my leg, “Tomorrow I’ll have you take the goats up. Have fun!”
I looked at him, “The goats!?”
Was Grandpa going to turn me into a Heidi?
Grandpa chortled, “You didn’t know I had goats, girl? Well, they’re cute little boogers. I’ll show them to you later.”
I clucked to Wyn and he trotted up the trail behind the house toward the sun, and the Ridgebacks.
Little aspens fluttered in the gentle breeze and a few birds twittered gently. I felt sadness wash over me and tears come to my eyes as I thought about my family, yet I’d promised myself I would not cry. Chet would’ve loved this; he’d always enjoyed horses and riding in the mountains.
Wyn tucked his head, asking for more speed and he broke into a gentle canter up the mountain.
Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to forget this terrible sentence of sadness and fly up the mountain.
Wyn sensed my heart and I leaned low over his neck as we flew up the mountain trail, wanting nothing more than to leave my memories behind.
Yellow leaves brushed my cheek as we took a small deer-path into the woods. It was like riding through a yellow bower as the sun shone down through the trees, throwing golden light onto the forest floor.
I clucked to Wyn and we continued up the steep descent.
As we rose higher and higher into the mountains and toward the Ridgebacks, I felt memories coming back to me that I’d forgotten.
Dad, “When something sad happens, Michaela, you need to let the Lord have it. Hanging onto it will only make you bitter and resentful to Him.”
Chet, “Don’t be stubborn, Michaela, the Lord knows what’s best, so let it go!”
Mom, “You’ll never be content if you don’t let God be in control.”
I wanted to shove these things out of my mind, and I urged Wyn into a gallop.
We burst out of the trees into a small green meadow. I looked up ahead and saw something that I couldn’t of seen even just back in the trees.
Like Uncle Jess had said, they rose up high into the sky, and it looked just like someone had handcrafted them.
Wyn snorted and I turned and saw a buck bound up the mountains.
I dismounted and ground-tied Wyn before opening the saddlebags and pulling out my sandwiches.
My stomach was growling, and I hungrily began eating the turkey sandwich, loving the taste of the dill-pickle.
Wyn gently nibbled on the still green grass.
I finished my sandwich and lay back down on the field. I would call this Highline Meadow. The dark clouds moved overhead, the sun breaking through here and there.
How was I supposed to let God be in control, when it seemed all He ever did was bring heartbreak? Why should I trust Him to take care of me, when He took away almost all of my family?
Questions flooded my mind as I lay out in the field. I could feel the tears pushing to come out but I angrily blinked them back; I would not cry.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sounds around me, the wind rustling through the trees and grass, birds softly twittering, and Wyn’s steady ripping.
I sat up quickly, my hair bouncing on my back, and stood up. I brushed my jeans off before remounting and continuing our ascent up the mountain.
When we reached The Ridgebacks, my breath escaped me. They were amazing. I sidepassed Wyn over beside them and reached out to touch the cold rock wall.
Wyn snorted and we kept going, cantering up to the hill that was at the end of this Ridgeback. The black horse huffed as he climbed up to the top. The large hill took much longer than I had anticipated to climb, and as I glanced at my watch, I realized that it was already almost 4:00. Wyn gave one last huff as he reached the top.
A breeze ruffled my hair as I looked in awe at the view. I could see far out into the valley, forest for miles, and a little toy version of Grandpa’s ranch. I wanted to wave at the mini people and horses, but I knew that you couldn’t see The Ridgebacks from the ranch; you could only see them after climbing to Highline Meadow.
I climbed off of Wyn and groundtied him again, before walking out onto the top of a Ridgeback. It was about twenty feet wide, and fairly smooth on the top. Little patches of grass grew and moss presided fairly well, I noticed, as my cowboy boots crossed over them. I walked to the edge of the rock and overlooked everything.
I could feel the strong wind, and I felt a wee bit dizzy as I looked over three hundred feet down to the ground.
I lifted my face to the sky and closed my eyes, breathing in the fresh mountain air.
Minutes passed before I opened my eyes, feeling refreshed.
The sky was beginning to darken and I knew I should be heading back. It was almost dark. I trotted back to Wyn and mounted up.
We ambled down the huge hill and back through the trees. I cued Wyn into a canter as we reached Highline Meadow.
Suddenly, a loud whinny reached my ears.
I whirled Wyn around and looked up to the Ridgebacks.
What I saw took my breath away. A horse and a rider were rearing at the edge, framed by the sunset. I felt a chill run down my scalp. The person rode just like Chet; one with the horse.