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The Last Wish Blues




Chapter One

Brenda Jean Ronson was your garden variety sixteen year old girl in all ways except one. She was of average height, about 64 inches tall, and had average looks, though she didn't consider herself to look 'average'. Her skin looked flat to her eyes ... pale and listless. She thought her nose was crooked, though no one else did. She thought her breasts were huge and obvious, though her bras were all sized 34. She absolutely refused to wear a swim suit, because the nipples on those breasts were too well defined, and stuck out, making her feel like everyone was staring at them. She thought her voice sounded nasal, even if the drama teacher asked her to try out for every female lead in every musical. She had a group of ten or fifteen girlfriends, who never said anything bad about her, either to her face, or behind her back. She wasn't aware that, if you have even two or three friends like that, you're very lucky.

Brenda Jean Ronson got high "B"s in all her classes, and though boys asked her out on dates frequently, she turned them all down. That was because of the thing that Brenda Jean knew about herself that made her anything but average.

Brenda Jean Ronson had cancer.

It had been found when she was thirteen, during a medical workup that was sought because she sometimes got dizzy for no apparent reason. Her parents, Dave and Linda, had assumed there was some nutritional deficiency that would be found, corrected, and the light of their life would grow up to be a beautiful young woman with her whole life ahead of her.

The prognosis had been anything but that.

The tumor that was found, and which was pressing against something in her brain that sometimes affected her balance, was inoperable.

There had been radiation treatments during her fourteenth year, and chemo therapy most of her fifteenth. She had lost her hair, and her skin had taken on a pasty appearance. She felt like she was a hundred years old at the end of a series of chemo, when she had to miss school and recuperate in bed as the poisons the doctors had pumped into her slowly leached out of her system. Cat scans showed that no progress had been made. If anything, the tumor had grown a bit.

It was no life for a sweet young girl, who never did anything in her life to hurt another human being.

The latest round of treatment had pretty much shot the wad of all the doctors, who were trying to kill the tumor in Brenda Jean Ronson's head, without killing her too. The waiting period had been endured, and the results from the latest MRI were in hand.

"I'm sorry," said Doctor MacNiel, a professionally sad look on his face. "We've done everything we can. I'm afraid your daughter's outlook is not good."

Linda Ronson wept quietly. She'd done a lot of that over the last two years. Brenda was off playing with kids in the cancer ward, who looked like her, with bald heads and pasty features, but who were ten years younger. Those kids loved her, and she loved reading to them, or singing songs with them, but it almost killed her parents to see her with them.

"So what now?" asked Dave. Dave, Brenda's dad, tried to be strong for all of them.

Doctor MacNiel frowned. This was the part he hated most about his job, but he gave it to them straight.

"This is very hard to predict, but we estimate, based on the rate of growth, that she has four or five months at the most, before the tumor incapacitates her. From there, we don't know. She could live another six months after that, or maybe even longer, but she won't be able to do much. The tumor is going to start affecting motor function soon, and she'll lose control of intentional movement. It will affect her memory too, probably. The symptoms will be similar to Alzheimer�s. I would recommend hospice care be started before she can't recognize anyone any more." He looked uncomfortable. "I shouldn't say this, but, in my opinion, the care she'll get ... at the end ... will be of higher quality if the staff gets to know her before she ... can't respond."

Dave, for the last two years, had been like a rock. He'd believed that modern medicine would give his little girl her life back, and he'd never flagged in that belief, despite the somber warnings of the oncologists. It was all that had kept him going, really. Now, as that was taken away from him, he crumbled, trying to sit, and missing the chair ... ending up on the floor sobbing.

The doctor helped him up, and into the chair. He was fighting tears of his own as he saw the man fall apart.

"I'll ... I'll just give you a little time," said MacNiel softly. "We'll keep Brenda busy for half an hour or so."

One would have thought the medical process was over ... that they'd be sent home to watch their daughter die. But there was more that could be offered. They were assigned to a grief counselor, who made an appointment with the parents when they had calmed down enough to be able to speak without bursting into tears every five minutes. She was calm, almost cheery, and it seemed almost horrifying that she could be that way. Her name was Sally.

"I know the last thing you want to see is a smiling face," said Sally, smiling. "But we have one more thing we can do for Brenda, and It will take all the help you can give me to do it."

"What are you talking about?" snapped Linda. "She's going to die! Doctor MacNiel said so."

"Yes," agreed Sally, no longer smiling. "But we can try to make what's left of her life as enjoyable as possible, and we can prepare her ... and you ... for the end." She looked serious now. "Most people don't get a chance to prepare for the end of their life. It can make a big difference in the quality of those last few weeks."

"What do we do?" asked Dave. "How does all this work?"

"Well, most of it will just be talking about things, at first. There are all kinds of issues to work through, both for you and for her. I know you don't feel this way right now, but there will come a time when all of you just want it to end. You'll feel like her life isn't worth living, and you may even want to end it prematurely. That's just honesty, and you all need to confront that so you don't feel guilty about it." She looked less severe. "And, there are some programs available to give her the opportunity to do something fun and exciting, before she's too sick to do that kind of thing any more. It can give her happy memories at a time when unhappy things are being endured."

Brenda took it pretty well, herself. She took it better than her parents, which isn't so hard to understand. They'd been around long enough to be able to envision her possible future, while, for her, High School, and cancer, of course, had seemed like her whole life. She had a lot of support. There was another girl who had about the same life expectancy, and they planned their funerals together, like they were planning a sleepover or something, choosing the music they liked, and telling their parents what kind of casket to get, and how they wanted to be dressed.

Sally took them through the grieving process, in an attempt to get the ugly phases of grief out of their systems, so that her last months could be as free of negative emotions as possible. It worked too, and all of them accepted that, fair or not, life was short, and some lives were shorter than others. There came a time when Brenda said she wasn't mad any more, and just wanted to enjoy the time she had left.

That was when Sally talked about the Foundation. It was a philanthropic organization that tried to grant last wishes to kids like Brenda. If she had a dream ... something she'd always wanted to do, but couldn't, for whatever reason, and if they could make it happen, they would. Donations and the investment of those donations had let the Foundation grant wishes of some two thousand young people before they died. And Brenda was eligible for the program.

"Is there anything you've always wanted to do, but never got the chance?" asked Sally.

"What kind of thing?" asked Brenda. There were hundreds of things she'd thought about doing, but hadn't had the time or opportunity to do.

"Well, we took one boy sky-diving, for instance," said Sally. "Several kids have wanted to meet a particular movie star. Sometimes they want to go on a trip somewhere, or see a particular place. Things like that."

What popped into Brenda's mind was a picture she had seen the night before. She had been leafing through the family picture album. Her parents couldn't do that - couldn't deal with it yet - but she enjoyed remembering the happy times, most of which were documented in the album.

In one photo, she was sitting on a horse, her smile wide, wearing a cowboy hat that was too big and was sitting on top of her ears.

It was from a trip the family had taken the summer after she'd had radiation treatments. They had gone to a place in New Mexico that was half tourist trap, and hosted family reunions or just families that wanted to be in the mountains for a while. It wasn't really a resort, but there was a place you could rent go carts, and a video game arcade. What Brenda had wanted to do was take a trail ride. That's when that picture was taken.

But, it had been something of a letdown for her. The ride was only forty-five minutes long, and she sat on a horse that was more interested in stopping to crop grass than actually go anywhere. It hadn't seemed like she was actually riding a live animal, except that her horse farted a lot. It had been a big disappointment for her. She had expected to canter, and gallop and feel the wind in her face. Her horse never went for more than ten steps without stopping, no matter how hard she kicked its ribs.

"I want to go on a real trail ride." she said suddenly. "A trail ride on a horse that will run. I want it to last a whole day, or maybe even go out overnight, and ride where nobody else goes, instead of a trail that a thousand people have ridden along. I want to eat cowboy food at a campfire, and see mountains up close." She looked at Sally nervously. "Could I do something like that?"

"I'm not so sure that riding horses would be such a good idea for a girl who gets dizzy sometimes," said her mother.

"They could tie me on or something. Oh, please, Mom? That would be so much fun. And to see the mountains up close, and drink from a spring and herd a cow or something. I'd love to do that."

Sally held up her hand.

"Tell you what. I'll drop that in the lap of some very talented people at the Foundation. They make amazing things happen. There are all kinds of companies and people tied into the Foundation. If it's possible to do that safely, they'll find a way. In the mean time, if you think of anything else, just let me know. You still have a month or two, so you don't have to rush it."

Brenda Jean Ronson went home that night with visions of Black Beauty in her mind, with her sitting on top, hair flying in the wind, whooping and hollering as cattle scattered before her. Her dream would have curdled the milk of any cowboy who happened to tune into it, but it was harmless enough as a dream.

Brad Collins, whose nickname was "Wishbringer", was good at his job. He worked for the Last Wish Foundation, and the challenge of making things happen made him eager to come to work every day. Most of the things he made happen were things that a lot of people might want to do, but only the select few would ever actually be involved in. People would do things for the Foundation that they wouldn't do for the average Joe.

He looked at his latest assignment. Trail ride, multiple days, campout, campfire food. Should be do-able. He knew that the average places that were in the trail ride business weren't going to be able to handle a request like this. What he needed was a Dude ranch. He hit the internet.

Hmmmm. Lots and lots and lots of entries. It was going to take a while to sift through them, pick four or five, and then get on the phone and work his magic. His stomach growled, and he got up to go to the vending machine. On his way, he saw the entrance to Sherry's cubicle, and instantly remembered the picture he had spent many moments staring at... It was a photograph of a young blond woman, in a bikini, sitting on a horse, wearing a cowboy hat. To be honest, it was the bikini that caught his eye the first time he saw it. She was a babe. He was single. He never asked Sherry who it was. That way he could dream, which is why he looked at it so often. Sherry was leaned back in her chair, feet up on the desk, talking on the phone. He stopped, and admired the photograph again.

When she hung up, he pointed at it and said "Tell me about that picture."

Sherry grinned. "That's my sister, Tammy. And yes, she's married."

"No," said Brad. "I mean where was it taken?"

"Oh!" She looked at the picture. "She went to this dude ranch, and the picture was taken there. She and her husband, Tom, went. Why?"

"I'm doing research," said Brad. "What's her number?"

"You're going to call her?" Sherry asked, surprised.

"Yeah. Maybe she can give me some pointers on what to look for, for this case I have."

Sherry wrote down her sister's number on a post-it note and handed it to Brad.

"She told me she got to build a barbed wire fence. Can you imagine that? She said she had a blast!"

Brad took one more look at the blond in the picture.

"I have to ask. What's the bikini all about?"

Sherry laughed. "Tom bought it for her before they went. He dared her to wear it. Actually, they had a bet. He bet she wouldn't wear it, and she bet she would. It's kind of skimpy, huh?"

"Looks mighty good on her as far as I'm concerned," said Brad.

"I guess all the cowboys thought so too," said Sherry. "She wants to go back again, but he won't let her. He says it's too expensive, but she says he had blisters for weeks afterwards, and was jealous of the way the men looked at her."

"They have a pool there?" asked Brad, still staring at the bumps on the tips of the bikini bra in the photograph.

Sherry laughed again. "No. That's the really funny part. I guess Tom thought the place was some kind of resort or something. I guess they did have a hot tub, or something like that, but the only place you could swim was where they water cattle. Can you imagine that?"

When Brad called Tammy, and explained that he worked with Sherry, and wanted to ask some questions about the dude ranch she had visited, she was happy to talk about it with him.

After she described her experience in glowing terms, she asked how he found out she'd been there.

"I saw your picture on Sherry's desk."

There was a long pause. "You mean the one in the bikini?"

"That's the one," he replied.

"Ooooo, I'll kill that girl," said the voice on the phone, though she didn't actually sound angry. "She didn't tell me she was going to put it in a public place!"

"It's a good picture," said Brad. "I'm just surprised that a place like you just described would ... um ... cater to a request like that."

"Oh, it's not what you think. It's a real working ranch, but they try to make the guests feel like they're part of the whole thing, and they like to have fun too. They have dances and all kinds of things."

"You think they could put something together for one of our clients?"

Tammy was fully aware of what her sister did for a living. She got excited immediately. "It would be perfect!" she squealed. "The woman who runs the place is just a doll. I know she'd be excited about doing something like that. I don't know why I didn't think of that before!"

"You know anybody up there?" he asked.

"Sure, hang on a minute." He heard the phone being put down, and a couple of minutes later she came back.

"It's called the Lazy N working guest ranch, according to the brochure I have, and the person to talk to is named Dannie." She read off a number.

"Can you FAX me that brochure?" asked Brad.

"Sure. I can scan it into the computer and you'll have it in ten minutes."

Seven minutes later, Brad was reading over the FAX he had just received. He picked up the phone and punched numbers.

He never made it to the vending machine.

Bob Nivens woke before dawn, like he usually did. His first thoughts were of Dannie and Kyle, like they usually were. He felt pain, which was also routine. Ranger, his horse, snuffled in the dark, which wasn't unusual at all. Ranger seemed to know when he was awake and asleep. They were a good partnership, all things considered. The horse, like its rider, had an independent streak, and liked life outside of the barn a lot more than it did inside.

Bob felt the absence of his other traveling companion, who usually slept curled up against Bob, but was likely out hunting now. That companion was a mongrel dog. She had turned up on the ranch one night in a blizzard, shaking like a leaf, dumped on the highway when she was only a couple of months old. Another dog Bob had had at the time had whined at the door, hearing the puppy outside, and Bob had gone out to see what was bothering her. He hadn't thought the puppy would survive, but Dannie had filled an empty two liter soda bottle with hot water and wrapped a towel around it. Then the puppy and the bottle had gone into an old ten gallon aquarium put near the wood stove. Kyle had sat beside the tank, talking to the puppy, which finally stopped whining and lay still. In the morning it was still alive, and it took milk, and then little pieces of Spam, and finally regular canned dog food. Kyle had loved it, even if the five-year-old had been a little tough on a spindly puppy. One time Bob had tried to get the dog to come to him, saying "C'mere, dammit!" Kyle had called it "Dammit" after that, and the name had stuck. It had kept on living, too, surviving when other dogs on the ranch didn't. The guests liked the dog, because she was friendly and happy, almost as if she knew she had beat the odds, and was living on borrowed time. The guests always laughed when the dog was called by name, and came, wagging her happy tail.

It was that dog, more than likely, that had saved Bob's sanity, when an avalanche took out a quarter mile stretch of the road, and the SUV along with it that had contained his wife and child. The mangled heap of twisted metal had been found half a mile from the road the next spring. They'd never had a chance. Dammit had known something was wrong, and she sat at Bob's feet day in and day out, leaning against his leg if he was still, and following behind him if he was moving. She never left his side while he sat, and drank, and raged at the universe that had taken the light of his life. Both lights.

The Lazy N had suffered for a while, along with him. He'd taken the ranch over from his father, who lost interest when Bob's mother had died of pneumonia. He'd survived her by only six months. The Lazy N was what was called a Working Guest Ranch, where people paid for the experience of working harder than they'd ever worked in their lives, often from sunup to sundown, whether it was baling hay, riding fence, or moving cows from one pasture to another, or to the loading point if they were being sold. People paid well for chuck wagon dinners, and a sleeping bag on hard, lumpy ground. The more tired they got, the wider they smiled. They also tended to smile a lot more as the week passed, because they knew they were going back to the comforts of the city soon. But they'd have tales to tell. The staff of the Lazy N made sure they got to ride, and rope, and shoot at a minimum. If there could be saddle sores, and sunburn, and aching joints too ... so much the better. In this business the phrase "No pain ... no gain" had a lot more meaning than it did in sports. People loved to feel down and out, when they knew they could go back to a vastly more comfortable life.

When Dannie and Kyle had been killed, and Bob fell apart, the ranch was saved by the foreman, whose actual name was Herman Wilkenson, but who was known only as "Rowdy" by all on the ranch. He had, in his early twenties, been a hard drinker, and a master of the practical joke. He'd stopped drinking, but his practical jokes still surfaced, though not quite as often.

Rowdy was more than twice Bob's age, at fifty-six, and had lived on the ranch his entire life. His mother had been a cook for the thirty or so men who had worked five thousand head of cattle back then. Nobody knew who his father was, and he moved from mascot, to helper, to full fledged cowboy, and finally to the top kick position on the ranch, second only to the owner. And Dannie, of course. All the men took orders from Dannie, because all the men would do just about anything to get one of her smiles directed their way. It was Dannie who, when cattle prices fell, and the ranch was in real trouble, came up with the business plan to run it as a working guest ranch, where selling cattle was not the primary money maker.

It had worked too. Providing a rich experience, where the guests weren't coddled, and knew they wouldn't be, had put black back in the books, and kept them there, improving the infrastructure and providing for amenities for those who didn't want to rough it quite as much. Now, if you didn't want to work hard, you could spend the same amount of money to sit around in the hot tub and watch others work hard, or maybe fish, or hunt, in season.

Rowdy had argued against the whole idea at first, but Dannie had draped her arms around his neck and brushed her lips across his grizzled cheek, and, like a little boy, he had fallen in line. By the time Dannie died, he was a firm believer in the business plan, and he made it keep working, if only to honor Dannie's memory.

It was also Rowdy who had sent Bob off on what he called a 'vision quest', taken from native American lore of days gone by.

"Take your horse, and your dog, and your rifle, and maybe a sleeping bag, if you're a pansy, and go spend some time grieving for your wife and child in the mountains," Rowdy had growled at a drunken Bob. "Come back when you think her spirit has talked to you and told you what to do." He'd taken the bottle away from Bob and kicked him out the front door of the big house, where Bob lived, and Rowdy had a room. "You ain't no good to me until you get it out of your system, so go on!"

That had been two months ago. Bob had been back to the ranch for supplies, now and then, and they stocked a couple of line shacks that he sometimes raided, but, other than that, Bob had simply ridden the forty thousand acres of Lazy N land, and probably six or seven thousand acres of the adjacent National Park, looking at the land, talking to his horse and dog ... and thinking.

It had taken him that long to admit that she was really gone. She never talked to him, though, or told him what to do.

He rode up to the ranch house late one evening, when the sun was just disappearing behind Thunder Peak, part of the mountain range that was actually thirty miles away, but which looked like it was right in the back yard of the house. There was a cluster of six guests on the porch, having after-dinner cocktails, and they looked at him curiously.

What they were staring at was a man who topped six feet, with a two month growth of beard, and who needed a haircut. He was wearing a sheepskin jacket, and battered felt cowboy hat of indeterminate color and, strapped around his waist was an actual gun belt, with an actual pistol in it. He sat the horse he was riding like he was born there, swaying negligently in the saddle as the horse quickened its steps, knowing there was a bucket of oats for it soon. A dog, made up of bits of fur that were five or six different colors of brown and tan trotted along beside the horse, her tongue lolling out of his mouth. Both the man and the dog looked dangerous somehow.

Three of the guests were women. All were married, and were with their husbands. They had come out west to have an adventure, and the Lazy N had exceeded their hopes. There had been a careful mixture of attention to their needs, and of leaving them alone. They had to fix their own drinks after dinner, for example, but the bar was fully stocked. All three women felt something tickle them inside as the man slowly rode up, more or less ignoring the group on the porch, as if they weren't there.

Their conversation had stopped when the rider came into view. This group had had their adventure, riding out on the range and being taught how little they knew about hard work. This was their last night in the big house that was a mixture of bed and breakfast, and working ranch house. Tomorrow they would go back to the real world, and none of the six were actually happy about that. They hadn't seen this man, though, while they were there. To the men, he looked dangerous, and the hair on the back of their necks stiffened. To the women he looked dangerous too, but in a different way, that made their hearts beat faster, and made their hands go to touch their hair.

"Evening," said the rider.

"Hi," said one of the men uncomfortably. "Can we help you?"

This ... offer, if that's the right term ... was born of the thing that made the Lazy N a place that people wanted to come back to, even though it was expensive. The staff made you feel like you were actually part of the operation, and the 'ownership' a guest felt at the end of a stay made them pine to come back again. Most did not, and the memory of the adventure they'd had in the wild west was all they had to reflect on in following years. A few did come back, most of them every couple of years, if they could swing it.

"Nope," said the rider.

He swung down from his horse, and the six people listened to that unique creak that only a leather and wood saddle can create when it's stressed. The man stood, bowlegged, almost like the ground felt strange to him. The dog sat down and looked around. She barked once, and the man looked down at her.

The man spoke, as if to a friend. "Okay, if you're going to be that way, go on and find something to eat."

The dog bounded off toward the back of the house, and the man took overstuffed saddle bags off the horse, hanging them on the hitching post. Then, without a word, he turned and walked toward the barn. The horse tossed his head, turned, and followed the rider, like he was on a leash, even though the reins were draped across his neck.

"What do you make of that?" asked Frank Brown, one of the men on the porch.

"Beats me," said Hank Downing. "Maybe he's looking for work."

"I've got some work he could do," said Mary Brown, sighing. She looked startled as her two female companions giggled and began to give her a hard time. Her husband did too. They were all kidding her when Donna, the cook, came out onto the porch.

"You all need anything before I close the kitchen?"

"No, we're fine," said Frank. "A man just rode up, though. He went to the barn with his horse. Had a dog with him too. Haven't seen him around here."

"Big black horse?" asked Donna, perking up. "Dog that looks like she'd just disappear if she was in the woods?"

"That would be the ones," said Frank. "You know him?"

Donna didn't answer the question. "You say he took the horse to the barn?"

"Well ... yes ... I suppose so," said Mary. "The horse actually just followed him. He told the dog to go get something to eat and it took off that way." She pointed. "Is there a problem? Is he dangerous? He looked dangerous. Should we call somebody?"

Donna almost laughed. "No, he's not dangerous. "I have to go. He'll want something to eat."

"Wait!" Mary looked anxious. "Who is he?"

Donna looked at the woman. She saw the same thing that she saw in the eyes of other women who visited the ranch and met Bob. His life was private, though, and these people didn't need to know his troubles.

"He owns the ranch," said Donna.

"You're kidding!" said Mary.

"No, Ma'am," said Donna. "He's been out on an ... inspection trip. Been gone quite a while now. I have to go. It's been nice having you here. Have a safe trip back home."

She whirled and, with a lot more energy than she'd displayed when she sauntered onto the porch, hurried back into the house.

Bob was halfway through a chicken fried steak dinner, with Donna hovering around him, when Rowdy appeared to wander into the kitchen. Bob looked up. Rowdy didn't wander anywhere. Donna must have tipped him off.

"Well," drawled Rowdy. "Look what the cat drug in."

"Nice seeing you, too, Rowdy," said Bob. He itched. The snowmelt made it too cold to take a bath up where he'd been riding, and his infrequent whore's baths, with a piece of rag, dipped in that cold water, hadn't really done much to clean him. He was looking forward to a hot bath.

"You back for more than a snack and to pinch some girl's bottom?"

Rowdy's face clouded up as he realized he'd spoken without thinking.

"Sorry, Boss," he said.

Bob waved a hand, chewing, and concentrated on the taste that flooded his mouth, instead of on the image that came to mind because of Rowdy's thoughtless comment. She was gone. He'd thought about following her - had taken his pistol for exactly that possibility - but hadn't used it. Two reasons were that the dog and horse were with him, and he coldn't abandon either of them up in the mountains, like that. Life had to go on. His, anyway. He had no idea how he'd manage that, but getting back to work would be a start.

"Things okay?" he asked between bites.

"Well," said Rowdy, uncomfortably. He felt foolish for his stupid remark. He loved this man like a brother, even though he'd never admit it out loud, and the last thing he wanted to do was prod an unhealed wound. "The place didn't fall apart without you, but I imagine the boys will be glad you're back."

"You been riding them hard ... as usual?" Bob took another bite.

"I am hurt!" said Rowdy, his voice casual. "All I do is try to keep things running, and then you come along behind my back and spoil them ... paying for their health care, and giving them bonuses. It's bad enough that you give them pay on top of their room and board."

"We still in the black?" asked Bob, ignoring the barb.

Rowdy sighed. "While you were out gallivanting around, your net worth went up another two hundred thousand. Price of cattle is up sharply, and we're booked solid for the next year and a half."

"Maybe I should go out for another two months," commented Bob.

"We need you here," said Donna. Both men looked at her and she blushed. "Well ... we do!"

"It's nice to know somebody missed me," said Bob. He eyed the cook. "Kind of interesting that you had a chicken fried steak dinner all ready to go when I got back."

"She's had one ready to go every night for the last month," snorted Rowdy. "And every night, when you didn't show up, one of the boys has come up here and eaten it." He grinned. "I 'spect the boys wouldn't mind if you went back out for a while, at that."

"Yeah, well ... I think I got it out of my system." Bob leaned back in the chair. "As much as I ever will, I guess."

"There's nothing wrong with missing her," said Donna, twisting a hand towel in her hands. "We all miss her, Bob."

"Yeah." Bob didn't add that nobody could miss her as much as he did.

"So you're back? For good?" Rowdy sounded relieved.

"Yeah, I guess I'm back," said Bob. He looked over a the liquor cabinet, and then away again. "Right now, though, it's a bath and bed for me."

"Crystal's going to want to see you," commented Rowdy. "She's been pulling her hair out."

"I thought you said we were booked solid for a year and a half," said Bob. Crystal had taken over as booking clerk and hostess after the avalanche.

"We are, but she's all worried that she doesn't have every "t" crossed." Rowdy grinned. "And the Johnsons are scheduled in two weeks."

Rufus Johnson, his wife Kaye, and their three teenage girls were well known at the Lazy N. Kaye was shameless, walking around in next to nothing, and her daughters took after her, wearing tank tops with spaghetti straps on horse rides, their unfettered breasts bouncing for all the men to ogle at. The girls tried their best to find a way into the bunkhouse too. In that, they also copied their mother. Rufus didn't seem to mind at all that his whole family was trying their best to get real live cowboy seed in each and every one of their bellies. He came for the fishing, and often disappeared into the wild for most of the week they spent at the ranch every year. It hadn't been so bad when the girls were in their early teens, but now the oldest would be nineteen or so, the youngest three years younger. All three easy on the eyes, and the men, who were under strict orders not to fraternize with the guests, could only be expected to resist so much. Kaye, for that matter, had seemed intent on sampling Bob in the past. He groaned at the thought that Dannie wouldn't be there to run interference this time.

"We need to hire some gigolos to take care of that family," said Bob, only half joking.

"This ain't Nevada," grinned Rowdy. "Even if it was, we'd probably have to pay overtime anyway. Those are the horniest wimmen I ever seen in my whole life."

Donna sniffed, and Rowdy grinned at her. When she had arrived at the ranch, seeking work, she had been a too-plump nineteen year old girl, with bad skin and limp dried out hair. She'd been running from somebody, or something, but had never talked about it. Four years of clean living and hard work had cleared up her skin, and even though she was the best cook in four counties, she'd lost weight, instead of gaining it. When a storm had driven a tree branch through her bedroom window, in the big house, and rain had soaked everything, she'd calmly moved into the bunk house with the men. They didn't complain, and she'd never moved back into the house. Bob didn't ask any questions, but he doubted seriously that she was sleeping alone these days.

"Tell her to pick some of the older men to ride herd on them," said Bob. "The older men will have more control."

"Okay, but I warn you, she's been crying about you being gone so long and she aims to see you when you get back."

"Tomorrow," said Bob. "Tell her tomorrow morning."

Chapter Two

Bob was soaking in the whirlpool tub when Crystal opened the door and walked in like she belonged there. She went to the stero and pushed pause. Blue Oyster Cult suddenly went silent.

"I told Rowdy I needed to see you as soon as you got back!" she said, almost stamping one foot. She had a clipboard in the crook of one arm.

"I'm taking a bath, here, Crystal," Bob commented dryly.

"I can see that," she said. "I'm not blind."

Crystal was twenty-five, the same age as Dannie, but the two women looked completely different. While Dannie had been a slim brunette, Crystal�s body was lush, and her head of wild, luxuriant blond hair went with the body. Crystal had been a guest, about three or four years back, and she and her husband had come to the ranch in a last ditch effort to patch up an ailing marriage. She had a five year old boy. Bob had seen right away that the husband - he couldn't even remember the guy's name now - had been an alcoholic. He'd been rough on the staff, rough on the horses, and rough on Crystal. Before they left, Bob offered her a job as a maid, in case things didn't work out. She'd showed up with the boy two weeks later, one eye vividly blackened, and had been at the ranch ever since. She was a woman driven to succeed as a single mother, and had a quick mind that was wasted as a maid. Dannie had drafted and trained her to take over the books of the operation, freeing Dannie from that responsibility, and had later made her a more or less official assistant for bookings. She had been a natural pick to take over when Dannie was gone.

Phillip, her son, was an honorary horse hostler, since he had a way with the big animals. At nine, he was going through a growth spurt, and was the king of the stable. Crystal probably knew he was back because Phillip had been in the stable, and had taken charge of rubbing Ranger down and putting him away. He'd also told Bob that supper was probably waiting.

"I know you're not blind, Crystal," said Bob. "And I'm naked, here. Don't you think that's a little inappropriate?"

"Do you see me trying to get a peek of your precious manhood?" she growled.

"No, but it's still inappropriate," he said, smiling for the first time in months.

"What's inappropriate is for you to go off like that, without a care in the world for the rest of us, who miss her just as much as you do!"

She bit her lip, and apologized instantly.

"I'm sorry, Bob. I shouldn't have said that. It's just been so hectic around here."

"I never did anything with the bookings anyway," said Bob, relaxing. "And you're just as good at handling things as Dannie was."

She slumped. "Thank you. But I never knew how much Dannie did with things. I just helped out, and this is really different ... doing it all myself, I mean."

"You need me to hire you an assistant?" he asked. He reached for the soap.

"No, you don't have to do that. If I can just get your attention now and then ... you know ... to ask questions, and see what you think about things ... I think it would be okay then."

"Okay," he agreed. "Put the Johnsons with Dusty and Billy. Don't give them three hands, or there'll be one for each girl. Those two will behave themselves. Put Kaye on a tractor, cutting the first season's hay. That will keep her out of everybody's hair except Frank, who'll have to supervise her. He's probably too old for her tastes. Rufus will take care of himself, like he always does."

Crystal looked surprised. "I wasn't worried about them! As far as I'm concerned, those tarts can all go home with bellies that will swell up. It would serve them right. But I've got a situation here that I've never run up against, and I'm going to need advice on that."

"What kind of situation?" he asked, soaping his chest and arms.

"Have you ever heard of the "Last Wish Foundation"?

"Can't say as I have," he said. "I'm going to stand up in a minute here, to wash the rest of me," he warned.

She ignored the warning.

"They work with people who are going to die, sick people, and such, and make one of their dreams come true before that happens. I got a call from them, and they want to send a cancer patient out here to live the life of a cowgirl for a week before she's too sick to stay out of bed."

"Cowgirl?" Bob stood up. He'd warned her.

Crystal stared, blushed and then turned to look at the sink.

"Yes, she's sixteen, or maybe seventeen, I can't remember. She's got a brain tumor and they can't do anything about it. It sounds like she wants to do what you've basically been doing for the last two months. You know, live off the land, camp out, look for strays ... that kind of thing."

"We can't send somebody out with her for a whole week," said Bob, frowning. "That would cost a bundle."

"Price, apparently, is no object," said Crystal, her eyes darting sideways, and then back to the sink.

"But she's sick!" objected Bob. "She can't take the rigors of the trail ... not for a week."

"That's the problem. They say that as long as we can get her here within the next two weeks, she'll be fine. They want us to squeeze her in, and we don't have any openings."

"I'll call them in the morning," said Bob. "I can't see this being a good idea."

She stood there, shifting from foot to foot.

"Is that all?"

"I guess so," she said.

"Then you can leave ... right?" He smiled, standing in front of her with a soapy, naked body.

"You've been out by yourself for two months," she said. "Don't you at least want to talk to a real live person?"

"I thought you hated men," he said.

"I do, but not all men," she said, as if it made perfect sense. "You're different. You're a nice man."

"I'm a nice, naked man, Crystal," he reminded her.

"I'm not talking about that!" she said, turning to put her back to him. "I don't think about you that way. I couldn't do that to Dannie anyway."

"Well, thanks for that," he said. His voice was neutral.

She turned to face him, her eyes blazing. "You're a good man, Bob, a decent man, probably the most decent man I know, and you deserve to have happiness in your life. You deserve a good woman, and I know I'm not that woman. I'm not ready for that, and neither are you anyway. But some day the hurt will lessen enough that you can be happy again, Bob, and I just want you to ... to ..." She slumped. "You helped me when I needed it. I just want you to be ready to help yourself when the time comes. That's all."

Bob stared at her. He didn't know what to say.

"I know that sounds like some kind of come-on," she said, her voice intense. "But it's not. I like you, but not that way ... not the way that sounded. I've moved on, and I know what that feels like. The memories never go away completely, but life can be good again. I learned that here. I just want you to understand that. We all miss Dannie, but you can't make that the center of your life. I'm babbling, and I can't say what I mean ..."

"Thank you," Bob said. It was amazing to him that this woman could be so heartfelt about a man who was just her boss. Then again, the whole ranch was like a big family in many ways. People came and went, but not often. Most people, once they settled in, liked the life, despite the long, hard hours. "I'll try to remember that."

"If you don't, I'll remind you," she said, turning away again. "Dannie had good taste in men, and I'll be hanged if I see that going to waste."

"Yes, Ma'am," Bob said, a tired smile coming to his face.

"All right then," said the woman, straightening her shoulders. She looked over one shoulder, boldly staring right at him. "And next time, I expect you to be decent when you call me in for a conference."

She grinned and left before he could manage a reply.

The next morning Bob called the Foundation, and explained that his operation probably wasn't going to be appropriate for a cancer-ridden young girl. He expected that to be the end of it, but within an hour there was a phone call for him.

"Mr. Nivens? Brad Jeffers, here. You don't know me, but I'm the one who wanted to book a trip to the ranch for one of out clients. I'm with the Last Wish Foundation. I got the message you gave our receptionist, and wanted to talk to you a little more about this. I'd really like for you to reconsider."

Bob sighed, and repeated his concern that a sick young girl probably wouldn't do well on a working ranch.

"Mr. Nivens," said Brad, "I've been over your brochure, and talked to one of your former customers. She's convinced that this would work, and she's familiar with the kinds of clients we have. We think the girl, in this case, could handle it. All she really wants is an extended trail ride, with maybe a little light work thrown in.

"You've seen our brochure?" asked Bob. "Who's the customer?"

"Her name is Tammy Hodgkins. She's the sister of one of the women I work with at the Foundation."

Bob remembered Tammy, who had come to the ranch on a free trip she'd won in a radio station giveaway that Dannie had thought might generate some business. She'd brought her husband with her. She was about five feet-one, and nobody had thought she'd be able to hack it. She'd proved them all wrong, while her big, bad husband had turned out to be a mamma's boy. If Tammy knew something about this girl, and thought she could do something at the ranch, there was a fair chance she was right.

Bob wasn't sure he was doing the right thing, but he said: "I think a week is a little long. Maybe we could put together a three day ride. All she'd have to be able to do is stay on a horse, for the most part."

"Thank you so much! said Brad. We'd like to book this as quickly as possible, while she's still healthy."

"Well, that's one of the problems we have," said Bob. "We're booked solid for the next whole year. All my regular guides are tied up."

"Isn't there anybody who could take her out riding?" asked Brad. "That's primarily what she wants to do. She wants a long ride, over something other than just a walking path."

"That won't be a problem," said Bob. "We don't have anything approaching a walking path on the whole place." With more misgivings, he went on. "I guess I could take her myself. I've just gotten back from an inspection trip, and I know a couple of places I could take her to see things the average guest doesn't get to see."

"That would be perfect!!" Brad's voice came excitedly over the phone. "I can't tell you how much we appreciate this, Mr. Nivens. This is going to mean so much to Brenda, before ..." His sudden stop reminded Bob that this would likely be the last time this girl got to do anything with a horse ... or anything else, for that matter.

"Give us a call and tell us when she'll be arriving," said Bob. "Will anybody be coming with her?"

"I don't think she has any special needs at this point. Her parents will probably come, of course, but they didn't say anything about going out with her. I'll check on that." said Dave. "I hope that's all right."

"I have no idea where we'll put them," said Bob.

"Maybe a hotel in town?" asked Brad. "We can take care of making the reservations and all that."

"I wouldn't count on that," said Bob. "The fact is that 'town', as you put it, is about forty miles away, and I wouldn't ask my worst enemy to stay in the motel there. We'll come up with something."

After he hung up, Bob stared at the phone. He had no experience with teenagers, other than having been one ten or fifteen years back. And his upbringing wasn't anything like that of other kids his age. His aging father had been a cattleman, who would never have gone into the guest business, even to save the ranch. The idea of having a bunch of greenhorns traipsing around the ranch who didn't know one end of a cow from the other would have horrified him. Bob had grown up working the ranch. His only girlfriend had been Dannie, and she'd told him, when they were juniors in high school that she was going to marry him.

He shied away from thinking about her.

Instead, he began making a list of things that a teenage girl, her body wracked with cancer, might be able to do without it killing her. On a working ranch, the list of things to be done was endless, and that meant that the options for a guest to get involved were endless too.

Within an hour he had a list of things that would keep the girl - and him - busy for three days. She could pick and choose what she wanted to do when she got to the ranch.

Then he remembered to find Crystal , and tell her the girl's "dream" was on again.

When the family arrived, and was met by Crystal, a group of seven guests and two hands were preparing to ride off to move a group of cattle to a higher location. The dust and noise of their departure set the stage for the meeting.

Bob sat across a coffee table in the library from the girl and her parents. The girl looked completely normal to Bob's eyes, just like any other teenager. While she was pale, she didn't look infirm, and her eyes were already shining as she sat, somehow looking eager. She had very big, and very blue eyes under her blond bangs.

"I've put together a list of things you might be able to do," said Bob, trying not to sound like he didn't think she could do much. He handed the list to the girl, who took it and scanned it.

"I don't care what I do, as long as I get to ride a horse a lot," she said. She launched into the story of her complaint with the trail ride she had been on in New Mexico.

"The horses we have here aren't like that," said Bob, when she finished. "They're all working horses, even the breeding mares. They respond to a rider based on how that rider acts. Horses are pretty savvy, and they can tell when someone doesn't know what they're doing. Sometimes they act up a bit with inexperienced riders."

"We don't want her getting bucked off or anything," said Linda, worriedly.

"I don't think that will happen," said Bob. Not by the time we actually take off. You both are welcome to come along," he added. "Do you like camping?"

"Me?" said Linda, her eyes, also blue, quite wide. "On a horse?"

Dave broke in smoothly. "Camping's not really our style. Brenda got a taste of it in Girl Scouts, and loves it, though. We'll be fine here. We just don't want her getting hurt."

"I'll pick the right horse for her," said Bob. "It may look strange to you all, but we'll actually let the horse pick her. If it's the right horse, I'll know it. I'll also know if it's the wrong one."

They looked doubtful, but went on to answer Bob's questions about what kind of "camping" Brenda had in mind. That word meant different things to different people. Bob was relieved to find that Brenda expected nothing more than to be able to stay dry, eat, and sleep warmly. She had camped with her girl scout troop, before she got sick, and he felt much better about roughing it, more or less, when she was able to talk intelligently about first aid, sanitation, litter control and other things that make a difference when you are separated from civilized society.

Finally Bob was satisfied that he had a working plan on what to do with the girl. The things she was asking for would run easily into three days. The Ronsons said they'd taken two weeks of vacation. They were planning on hitting some scenic spots on the way back home, and spending time with Brenda on their last vacation together.

"We'll play it by ear, then," said Bob. "We'll have a two-way radio with us. Where we're going, cell phones don't work, but we'll check in each night to let you know everything's okay. Our first stop is a good six hours ride, so we'll start in the morning. That gives you all a chance to look around, have dinner with everyone, and get a good night's sleep."

He smiled for the first time since they met him.

"I don't know how she did it, but Crystal found a room. You'll all three have to stay there tonight, but while we're gone it won't be so crowded."

How Crystal had "found" the room for the Ronson family, she hadn't told Bob. He might not have approved. She did it by talking to the hands who were taking care of a group of five men and three women who were on a corporate "team building" trip. The oddball numbers had resulted in one of the men and one of the women having single rooms. Dusty, one of the hands setting up challenges for the "team" to conquer together, grinned and said that Diane, the Vice President of Marketing, and Roger, the Vice President of offshore development, had been making moon eyes at each other ever since they'd arrived. Both were married, but no spouses had been brought along on the trip. Crystal got the group together and described Brenda's predicament, asking if there were any volunteers who would make the sacrifice of rooming together for the rest of the trip. Diane said she could stand it, "just for the sake of the poor girl" of course, and Roger said he could sacrifice his privacy too. Nobody was fooled, but nobody seemed to care either.

An hour later, Diane and Roger had finished moving their things into one room. It was an hour before supper, which was held, family style, in the big dining room of the ranch house. Diane remarked on how sweaty she'd gotten carrying all two of her suitcases to the new room, and how she just had to have a shower before dinner. Roger allowed as how he, too, probably smelled like a horse.

They ended up in the shower together, and almost didn't make supper at all. Only the knowledge that they would have all night together - not to mention they'd be missed, and somebody might come looking for them - made them stop what they were doing, to get dressed to go eat.

The next morning, after breakfast, Bob met the Ronsons at the corral. There were a dozen horses milling around, or standing placidly. Two had come over to see Bob, Ranger being one of them.

When Brenda came up, her eyes fastened on the stallion.

"Ooooo, I like that one," she sighed pointing at Ranger.

"That one's not for you," said Bob. "Mostly because he's the one I'll be riding. He's also a stallion, and he can be ornery sometimes."

"Well, how do I pick one?" the girl asked.

"Like I said, horses are smart. Let's you and me step into the corral and see what happens."

Her parents watched anxiously as he slipped the wire off the top of the gate post and took their daughter amongst the big animals. The horses seemed to drift away from the two as they walked, making room, and Bob took her to the center of the enclosure. He told her to stand still, while he stepped back. She looked a little nervous, but he talked to her in a soothing voice.

"Just stand there and think about riding," he said. "Close your eyes if it will help."

Ranger butted his shoulder from behind, and Bob reached out to stroke the big black. Nothing happened for two full minutes, and Bob told the girl to be patient, and to concentrate on how she'd feel if she was riding.

Two horses began to drift toward her. One reached its neck out and snuffed, almost in the girl's ear. She had closed her eyes and jumped. The horse drew its head back quickly and backed up, its eyes rolling. The other horse, a roan mare, seemed not to be paying any attention to the girl, but stepped closer and closer, until its head was within reach. It dropped its head, like it wanted to graze, though there was nothing to eat on the bare ground. It shook its head and stomped a hind foot twice.

"She wants you to put your hand on her neck," said Bob softly.

Brenda had kept her eyes open after being startled by the first horse, and she'd been staring at the roan. Tentatively she reached and stroked the neck, just beside the mane. The mane quivered. The horse tossed its head, pushing its neck into Brenda's hand.

"Don't be scared," said Bob quietly. "Talk to her."

"You're beautiful," said Brenda, reaching to stroke again.

The horse turned its head to face the girl, and Brenda stroked its nose.

"Your nose is so soft!" sighed Brenda. "You're just so beautiful!"

The mare nosed the girl, making her step back with the force of it, even though it wasn't violent.

"I think you've found yourself a horse," said Bob.

"What's his name?" asked the girl.

"Her name is Buttercup," said Bob.

"Buttercup?" asked Brenda, turning to look at Bob. "What kind of name is that for a cowboy horse?"

"It's a name that fits her," said Bob. "She's a sweetheart, but she's got just a little wildness in her, like the flower."

"Will she let me ride her?" asked Brenda. "I mean if she's wild and all?"

"You'll have to convince her who's boss. She's a 'jinker', which means she'll dance around when you first get on her. I'll teach you how to stay in the saddle, and you'll have to talk her into behaving."

Brenda reached with both hands to stroke either side of Buttercup's face.

"I can't believe a horse as beautiful as you would give me any trouble at all," she said to the horse. "You be a good horse, and I'll be a good rider, and we'll get along just fine."

Bob nodded, and walked back to the gate. "Bring her over here," he called out.

Brenda reached for the halter, and gave it a tug. The horse stepped out and followed her calmly.

Three hours later they were on the trail. Dave and Linda had almost had heart attacks when they watched their daughter get up on a horse that immediately jumped it's hind legs a foot off the ground. Bob had mounted her first, though, and showed Brenda what to do, and she copied him perfectly. She spoke to the horse, which jumped once more, and then settled down. They nervously waved goodbye as their daughter rode off, in the company of a man who was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. She wasn't riding off into the sunset - the sun was high at that point - but they still had a slight feeling of dread. No one would ever get the chance to see her ride off like that again. That feeling of dread, though, was something they were acquainted with, if not used to. She was dying, and they all knew that. Knowing, though, didn't make it any easier.

"I hope she has a good time," Linda sighed.

"She's already having a good time," said Dave, resisting the urge to wipe his eyes. "What are we going to do for the next few days?"

"Worry," said Linda.

"Besides that," prodded Dave. "We're alone for the first time in a long time." The innuendo in his voice was impossible to miss.

"We've been alone every time she had to stay in the hospital," said Linda. "We're going to be alone for the rest of our lives." A tear dripped down her cheek.

"Okay," said Dave, heavily, "We'll find something else to do. You want to ride a horse?"

"The things scare me half to death," said Linda, still watching the receding figures as they rode out of sight around a barn. "They always have."

"Well, then, it's time you learned how not to be scared any more."

Chapter Three

For Brenda, the feeing of suddenly being "alone", out in the wilderness, as she thought of it, also brought a mixture of other feelings. Bob was there, of course, but he was riding ahead of her, and not talking. He'd said they had to cover ten miles before they'd reach a suitable camping spot, and at this pace, that would take hours and hours. She was impatient to see something ... get somewhere ... be a camper. At the same time, the gentle swaying of the horse was comforting, and the absence of all sound, save the clopping of eight hooves, made her feel like she was already a thousand miles from civilization. At least Buttercup didn't seem to be interested in stopping all the time. She walked more quickly than the horse in the picture back home, too.

Suddenly, Bob was right beside her. She hadn't seen him do anything ... hadn't heard him give any command to his horse, but he was suddenly there, close enough to reach out and touch. His horse, and hers, nodded at each other and rubbed noses as they walked.

"Running a horse is very different than walking," said Bob. "Your legs have to get involved, flexing at the knees, so you can moderate the weight of your butt on the saddle. Otherwise it will beat you to death. Have you ever cantered or galloped before?"

Brenda looked at him with wide eyes. "I guess not," she said. "I just thought you sat there while the horse did whatever he does."

"Hold on to the saddle horn with both hands," said Bob. He made a clucking sound, and his horse jumped forward, moving into a trot. Buttercup followed instantly.

Without warning, Brenda was suddenly bouncing around like she was in an earthquake. She had automatically reached for the horn, at his comment, and gripped it frantically as she felt like she was being tossed three feet into the air. One foot came out of the stirrup, and she wailed, knowing she was going to fall.

"Whoa," said Bob, and both horses slowed to a walk again. They had only gone thirty feet.

He looked at her, without smiling.

"See what I mean?"

"Ow," she said, leaning to rub at her bottom.

He explained what she had to do with her knees and thighs, and they tried it again. She thought she would be beaten to death, at first, but seeing him watching her made her ... a little angry, maybe ... and she concentrated on her legs. It took another thirty seconds or so before she found the rhythm, and her violent jounces settled into rapid bumps. She was still hitting the saddle hard, and her butt hurt. She realized in an instant that, if they kept this up, she wouldn't be able to ride more than a mile or two before it would hurt too much to sit.

He slowed them to a walk again.

"Now, a gallop is completely different," he said conversationally. "You'll learn to use your abdominal muscles then. It's a different rhythm. Even though the horse is going faster, you're body's reaction to the movement will be slower. We'll only go a short way, and this time, I want you to not hold on to the horn. You'll find your arms help with balance. Don't pull at the reins, though. Buttercup stops on a dime, and if you aren't ready, you'll fly right over her head. When you're ready to stop, just lean back and tug them enough to let her feel it. Don't jerk them!"

This time he asked her if she was ready and, when she nodded nervously, he gave a "Heayah" kind of sound. Buttercup launched ahead like a rocket, and by the time Brenda had let out the breath she had been unconsciously holding, and took another, she felt like she was flying.

This rhythm she caught onto instantly, leaning forward a bit, and flexing her knees. The horse's back seemed to rise and fall almost gently, and she had no trouble keeping her butt on the saddle. She felt her gut tighten and loosen, as her upper body seemed to stay at the same place, relative to the ground, while the horse, and her lower body, dropped and rose in a measured beat.

This ... was glorious.

She heard a high pitched scream, and realized it was her own voice that had made it ... a scream of delight as the ground flashed by beneath her. She looked ahead, and then to her left, where Bob was flying beside her on his big, black horse. He was grinning, and she realized her lips were stretched wide in the same way.

It seemed to go on forever ... and yet all too soon he yelled at her to lean back. "Gently!" he called.

Feeling like she was glued to the horse, she leaned back and tugged gently on the reins. Buttercup dropped into a canter immediately, and suddenly she was bouncing all over the place again.

"Whoa!" she called, and tugged harder.

Only the fact that she wrapped her arms around Buttercup's neck, and the saddle horn, digging painfully into her gut, stopped her from flying forward as Buttercup skidded to a halt. The horse tossed her head, and looked backwards, as if to say "What?"

Bob had gone on ahead, and turned his horse to come back.

"You okay?" he asked.

She sat up, panting. "This is a lot harder than I thought it would be."

"Takes years to get really good at it," said Bob.

"I don't have years. I'm going to have to learn a lot faster than that," she said grimly. Then she smiled. "I like galloping."

He smiled. "Everybody likes galloping. It's hard on the horse if you do it too long, though. They can keep a canter going all day long."

"Of course they can," sighed Brenda. "The one thing I can't do, a horse can do forever."

"You'll get the hang of it," said Bob. That's how to cover a lot of ground." He looked at her. "That is what you want to do ... right?",

He was giving her a chance to back out of this, and she knew it. She was stubborn, though. "I'll get the hang of it," she said firmly.

He kept them at a canter. It took another half hour, and her butt was so sore that she wasn't at all sure she'd be able to do this, when, suddenly, the bouncing just stopped. She looked around in confusion, but the horse was still moving along at a trot. Her head was still moving up and down, but it wasn't the jarring bump that it had been for what seemed like hours. To her chagrin, as soon as she recognized that, the bumping started again. It took her another ten minutes to get the rhythm back in a way that she could recognize how to do it consistently.

"You need to stop?" called Bob. He'd been riding ahead of her, picking the path, while Buttercup just followed the stallion.

"Yes," she called out, "but not yet. I just figured out how to do this without killing myself."

She watched as the big man turned in his saddle, his rhythm unbroken, and watched her for half a minute while his horse went on ahead without any direction that she could see. She watched in amazement as Ranger dodged to one side to avoid a boulder, and Bob's body compensated for the movement he couldn't possibly have seen coming. When Buttercup did the same thing, she was just as amazed to feel her own body sway in the saddle, leaning automatically so she kept her place.

"You're a quick learner!" he called back, grinning.

"My butt's killing me!" she yelled back.

"We could stop for a snack," he yelled.

"Just a little farther," she shouted, leaning forward just a tad and feeling how that took the strain off her legs.

He led them on for ten more minutes, and pulled up beside a copse of trees. He dismounted with a fluid grace she tried to emulate, but failed miserably at. Her legs felt like they were made of rubber, and her butt cheeks felt like they were on fire. Even the insides of her thighs felt raw. She hobbled, walking bowlegged, to lead Buttercup next to Ranger.

"I have something for the pain," said Bob, dropping Ranger's reins to the ground. "Let her reins hang loose like that," he instructed the girl.

He got into his saddle bags and pulled out a mason jar that had a thick, pasty brown substance in it.

"Bob's patented saddle-sore solver," he said, holding it up to her.

"What do I do with it?" she asked, skeptically. "It looks like it would taste nasty."

"It would taste nasty, if you were foolish enough to eat it." He grinned. "Smear it on your butt and inner thighs. Rub it in pretty well. In about sixty seconds you won't be able to feel a thing."

She stared at him. "I don't suppose I put it on the outside of my clothes ..."

He grinned again. "Of course not. Rub it into the skin. It's an old Indian remedy that deadens the nerves. One of my hands makes it up for me. When it wears off you'll think you're going to die, but I have enough to last two or three days, and by then you should be toned up enough that the pain won't be there any more."

"And where, exactly, am I supposed to do this?" she asked archly.

He pointed to the copse of trees. "Go in there. I won't watch."

She looked at the paste, in the jar, in her hand.

"How much longer before we get to our first camping spot?" she asked.

He looked at the sun. "Well, it's about eleven now, and I figure we'll be there around three this afternoon. That will give us plenty of time to set up camp and do any exploring you want to do before supper. Once supper is fixed and eaten, I imagine you'll be wanting to sleep."

Brenda looked at her watch. It was eleven minutes after eleven. She looked at his wrist, and saw it was bare.

"Four more hours?" she asked, pain in her voice.

"With several breaks," he said easily. "Go put that stuff on. You'll feel much better. I promise."

Brenda stood in the middle of the trees. There was thick brush all around her, and she couldn't see anything, but she still felt nervous about dropping her pants. Her inner thighs were still burning fiercely, though, and that drove her to unbuckle her belt, unzip her jeans, and push them down. She realized she'd have to push her panties down too, to get to her buttocks, and looked around nervously again. She opened the jar and sniffed, jerking her head back instantly. The stuff smelled awful! She could just barely get her fingers far enough into the neck of the jar to scoop out some paste.

She tried it on ibe inner thigh first. It felt cool, and before she'd even gotten to her other leg she could feel the soothing relief, as the pain just vanished. When she finished with her other thigh, it felt so much better that she ignored her nervousness and pushed her panties down quickly. She felt stupid rubbing her own bottom, but as the ache disappeared she got over that too. She pulled her clothing back up and took a few steps, bending this way and that, astonished that she could feel nothing but the coolness, penetrating to her sore tissues. She decided it felt a little like what the dentist did. Reaching back she ran her fingers over her butt lightly, and couldn't feel them at all. It was just numb.

When she pushed back out of the brush, to see Bob sitting on his horse, she grinned.

"That stuff is amazing!" she said, handing him the jar.

"I know," he said smiling. He leaned and turned to stow the jar back in his saddle bag. He made it look effortless. "You ready to try it again?"

As she had dismounted her horse, the only thing she could think about was how hard it was going to be to get back up in the saddle. Now, though, with the pain gone, Buttercup didn't look quite so tall as she had before. Lifting a foot to the stirrup, Brenda sighed at the fact that it didn't hurt at all, and pulled herself up into the saddle. It didn't feel as foreign to her as it had before, and she smiled brightly.

"Yes!" she said happily.

For the first twenty yards, she bounced, and then got back into the rhythm of the canter. For the first time she was able to look around, at the country they were riding through.

They stopped three more times, to let her get down and stretch her legs. She had to apply the salve again, the second time they stopped. This time he walked around a big boulder while she slid her jeans and panties down. She looked, to make sure he wasn't watching her, but didn't feel the nervousness she had before. When she called out that she was decent again, and he sauntered around the boulder with a weed sticking out of his mouth, she looked at him closely, for the first time.

That he was tall, she remembered. She hadn't realized how brown his skin was, and that his face was covered with tiny lines that made him look older than his body suggested. She saw sliver tips at the ends of the hair in front of his ears, and realized that, if he got a haircut, those ends would not show. The rest of his hair was a uniform dark brown. He had the kind of crinkles around his mouth that suggested he smiled a lot. Of all the adult males she knew, and who were about his age, he was the thinnest. He looked muscular, somehow, but was thin. She decided that it was the way he moved that made him look muscular. He walked like he was weightless, and could jump six feet straight up in the air if he wanted to. She guessed he was in his late thirties.

Brenda cocked her head as he sent her an inquiring look. She knew instinctively that he wanted to know if the salve was still working.

"Good stuff," she said.

"That's good," he answered. "You hungry?"

They ate sandwiches from his saddle bags. They were mashed flat, but she didn't care. This ham and cheese was the best she'd ever tasted, as far as she was concerned.

At the third stop he had her climb a tall rock spire with him. It used different muscles, and she felt weak as she struggled to follow his effortless climbing. He showed her where to put her hands and feet when it got steep, and moved beside her.

"Aren't we supposed to use ropes and stuff?" she asked nervously at one spot where it was ten feet straight up.

"This is pretty easy," he assured her. "There are lots of niches to put your fingers and toes. Besides, we're almost there."

She crawled along a sloping ledge that went around a bulge, and saw that it opened up to a flat area that was ten or fifteen feet across. When she stood up, she had to take a step to counter the force of the wind that whipped her hair and shirt, plastering it against her body.

She felt like she could see for a thousand miles. The country they were riding through was littered with large boulders, many bigger than the horses themselves. For the last few miles she had been unable to see more than a hundred yards in any direction before her vision was blocked by what she had thought were hills. Now, from up here, she could clearly see that the wind had blown slops of soil up against huge chunks of rock, over the years, and plants had taken hold in that soil.

"Wow," she gasped, staring out at where they had just ridden.

"That's our back trail," he said, standing beside her and pointing. "You can see the path through the rocks from here."

She could, too. It was an obvious line that meandered between boulders. Down there she had just thought he was going around them, always heading up, more or less, but from here she could see that he had taken the only real route to get where they were. Any other path would have taken them to a dead end, and they'd have had to turn around and retrace their steps.

"The ranch house is over there," he said, pointing. He stood behind her and laid his triceps on her shoulder so she could see right down his arm to his pointing finger.

There was a haze in the air, but she stared, finally seeing a dark smudge that looked like the roofs of several buildings. Looking further she could see a line that looked wrong, somehow, and realized it was the highway that went by the ranch. As she watched, there was a glint of bright light on that line as the sun glanced off the windshield of a car she couldn't even see.

"It's so beautiful," she sighed.

"View's like this are what keep me here," he said, almost in her ear.

She shivered, and realized it was his breath in her ear that had caused it. She was suddenly intensely aware that there was very light contact between his front and her back. He felt very close to her in that second. Instead of stepping away, though, she almost stepped back into him. She felt very alone way up here, where no one could see them. Her parents were at that dark smudge he was pointing at, but even if they were outside waving like maniacs, she wouldn't be able to see them. Having him so close to her made her feel better, somehow.

His arm was withdrawn, and returned. There was a pair of binoculars in his hand. She took them and held them up to her eyes, trying to find the ranch. He wasn't touching her, but she could still feel his closeness, behind her. She finally found the dark smudge she'd been looking at, as it sprang into view. It was still so far away that she coldn't make out any people, but the buildings were those she was familiar with.

She turned, handing him the binoculars, and looked behind them. The mountain looked like she could jump from where she was to its slope, it was so close. It kept going up and she saw where the trees stopped suddenly, and gray rock reigned supreme. There was white at the tips of the rocks above that.

"Where are we going?" she asked, reaching her hand to keep in contact with him. She felt dizzy, but it wasn't the tumor kind of dizzy. It was the dizziness of being so small in such a huge place. "We're not going clear up there, are we?"

"No," he said. "We'll stay in the tree line. We're going to start north, along the mountainside, over there." He pointed to their right. "There's a spring about a mile over that way. It comes out of the rocks, but is fed from up above. There's a good place to camp there." His arm kept moving to the right. "Then, the next day, we'll work the side of the slope, going on ....

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