Nine Years Old
The old pickup truck bumped along the dirt pathway up the hill where Dad and I liked to eat lunch. My window was open and the breeze made my hair whip around my face every time we turned a corner.
Pine trees lined the road, and the woodsy scent filled the cab. We were new to Jackson Hole, but so far, I liked it well enough there. At least it was prettier than some other places we’d lived.
A major plus was that Dad’s new job was on a horse ranch. One day a week, like today, I got to come to work with him. I had to stay out of the way and help out where I could, but I didn’t mind. I loved all animals, but horses were my favorite.
I smiled when we stopped at the peak of what I was starting to think of as our hill, taking a deep breath through my nose as I admired the view from up there. Since it was summer, the valleys were green and dotted with wildflowers. Snow still capped the mountaintops in the distance, but the weather was balmy and nice.
Dad turned off the engine before digging around behind his seat for the lunch Mom had packed for us. “What’s it going to be today, sweetheart? You want the tuna or the egg?”
“Tuna,” I replied without hesitating. Egg was Dad’s favorite, and I didn’t mind the tuna so much. “Thanks for bringing me up here again. I feel like we’re on top of the world.”
“You’re welcome, baby.” Unwrapping the sandwiches, he handed mine over and gave me the brown paper it had been in to place on top of my legs.
The truck was old and a little banged up, but he was proud of it. Whenever we had lunch in it, I made sure not to make a mess.
After tucking my hair behind my ears, I dug into my lunch. The bread was a bit dry and tasted slightly stale, but it didn’t bother me. I couldn’t even really remember what it tasted like fresh.
Dad took his first few bites in silence, his warm brown eyes sweeping across the landscape below. “I’m sorry we had to move again. I know you were just starting to make friends and settle in at school.”
“That’s okay, Daddy. I’ll make new friends here. The kids have been nice to me.” That last part wasn’t so true, but I didn’t want my father to worry.
Always being the new kid was hard enough, but it was getting more difficult now that I was getting older. I used to be able to just walk in and ask some kids in my class if they would be my friends. The last few times we’d moved, I’d realized it wasn’t that easy anymore.
I was nine now. Not five or six. I knew it would only keep getting harder.
Dad looked at me like he knew I was lying but didn’t call me out on it. He let out a quiet sigh and took another bite of his sandwich, chewing slowly before washing it down with some water from the canister we’d filled up down at the stables.
“You’re a real trooper, darling,” he said finally. “But I know moving so much has been tough on you. I’m sure I’ll find something soon that will keep us in one place. Who knows? It might even be this one.”
“I hope so,” I said before I could stop myself. Worry punched me in the gut. I didn’t want Dad to feel bad if this job didn’t work out. “It’s okay if it’s not this one. I just like the horses, so it will be nice to stay, but if we don’t, at least I still have that picture book you gave me.”
He grinned and reached out to ruffle my hair. “You don’t just like horses. You love them. Why do you think I took this job?”
“Really?” My eyes opened wide. “You took it because I love horses?”
“Yep,” he said cheerfully. “You know I love all animals. Working with all the livestock they’ve got here is going to be interesting anyway, but the horses cinched the deal for me.”
Leaning over, I smacked a kiss on his stubbled cheek. “You’re the best, Daddy. I promise I’ll learn as much as I can. Then maybe they’ll let me help you more often. Maybe they’ll even pay me.”
He chuckled but there was no light in his eyes like there usually was when he laughed. “Don’t worry about getting paid, baby. There’ll be plenty of time in your life to worry about money. For now, just be a kid.”
“I am a kid, but I also love animals. If I learn enough to be a real help and they decide to pay me, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
“It’s going to be a great thing one day, sweetheart.” He turned in his seat and rested his back against the door. “I’m taking it you still want to be a veterinarian when you grow up then?”
I nodded enthusiastically. “It’s my dream to work with animals all day, every day. And to help them when they’re sick or hurt. Just like you do.”
“Well, I just help the people who help them,” he said quietly. “You’re going to be the actual person helping them one day. You’ll be a world-class vet if you just keep believing that you will be.”
My heart sped up. “Do you really think so?”
“Absolutely,” he said, his voice confident and firm. “Always remember that, baby. If you can dream of something, you can do it. So long as you never lose sight of your dreams and never give up.”
I sat up a little straighter, my chest swelling as I took his words in. He always made me believe in myself.
“I won’t give up,” I promised. “I’ll work hard and I’ll learn from you and the vet for the ranch. You’ll see. I’m going to learn so fast.”
“That, you will.” He grinned, his eyes shiny when he looked up at me again. “You can do anything you put your mind to. The secret lies in never giving up hope that it’s going to happen for you.”
My ears perked and my spine straightened. My daddy was so smart. He knew everything.
Somehow, I just knew that I had to listen whenever he spoke. If I listened carefully and remembered everything he said, maybe my dreams really would come true.
“Did you want to work on a ranch just like this one when you were young, Dad?”
He shrugged but reached out to place his hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. His eyes twinkled in the mid-afternoon sunlight reflecting from the windshield as they moved over my face.
“All my dreams came true when we had you. I always wanted to be a dad to a beautiful baby girl.”
Heat raced to my cheeks and I smiled widely at one of my two favorite people in the world. “I’m glad I got you as my daddy.”
“I’m glad we got you as our daughter.” He finished his sandwich and balled the paper in his hands before tucking it back into the bag we’d brought our lunch in. “Once you’re done eating, we should head back down. There are people coming out to see the horses and I need to show them around.”
Stuffing the last two bites into my mouth at once, I chewed as fast as I could and folded the paper neatly before stowing it in the bag too. When I was done, I stuck my hands out of the window to dust them off and turned to look at my dad over my shoulder.
“Can I come with you to see the horses?” I asked, already envisioning the beautiful stables in my mind. Dad’s new boss had so many horses that I still hadn’t seen them all.
I’d only been there twice before today, though. The first time, Dad had given me a tour, and the second, we’d only had a quick look in the stables before he got pulled away to fix a broken fence.
This morning, I’d helped him muck a few stalls. I was looking forward to spending some time with the horses this afternoon.
Bouncing slightly in my seat on our way back down, I got a view of the ranch from above as we came around the side of the hill. A station wagon pulled up next to one of the paddocks, and a woman and a boy climbed out.
As we got closer to them, I realized the boy looked like he was around my age. Maybe just a bit older. They were talking to Dad’s boss, but the boy was facing the hill we had just descended.
He had floppy dark brown hair I would’ve thought was black if it hadn’t been for the amber tinge in it in the bright sunshine. When we drove past him to park near their car, our eyes met for a brief minute.
My heart did a funny flip-flop kind of thing and my palms suddenly felt sweaty. The boy was cute. I’d never really thought that about a boy, though, so I yanked my gaze away from his stare and fidgeted with my fingers in my lap instead.
Dad jumped out of our truck after parking and motioned for me to follow him. I caught up just as the ranch owner noticed him walking up to them.
“Ah, Marco.” The owner grinned. “You’re right on time. This is Madelyn. She and her son have moved in nearby and they’re thinking about getting a horse. Why don’t you show them around?”
Dad smiled and shook hands with the woman. “I think I can do that. Do you have any preferences about what you’re in the market for? We’ve got a little bit of everything around here.”
“I’m thinking a palomino would be lovely, but Colt recently read Black Beauty. He’s also learned that a young male horse is a colt. If you ask him, we’re now in the market for a black colt.”
“Colts can be a handful.” He shared a good-natured smile with Madelyn before turning to the boy. “But if you’re willing to put in the work, I’m sure we could help you with the training. We might even have a palomino colt in the stables. Let’s see if we can find something you’d both be happy with.”
Colt grinned. “I’d like a black one, not a gold one. But Mom says gold is prettier.”
“Let’s do what Marco suggested and see what they’ve got,” Madelyn said, shaking hands with the owner before following Dad and me to the stables.
They were built out of red bricks and had wooden doors with iron hinges. A high roof covered the building and there was hay in all the stalls. It looked like the kind of place out of one of my books.
Not even the smell of manure put me off. It wasn’t overpowering at all. In fact, it was alluring. It reminded me of where we were and of the animals all around us.
I’d read horsey people liked the smell for that very reason. So I was pretty sure I was a real horsey person.
Dad and Madelyn chatted as he showed them around while Colt and I hung back. He didn’t speak to me though, and I couldn’t pluck up the courage to speak to him. I just kept sneaking peeks instead.
One of the other farmhands had a horse out of its stall up ahead, but it was neighing and stomping its hooves. The commotion caused me to look away from the boy as I was wondering if he’d be in my class at school.
“You okay there, Rick?” Dad asked the other man.
His muscles strained as he tried to hang on to the obviously unhappy horse. “Fine. We just need to get Ned settled. He only arrived here this morning, but it looks like he’s a feisty one.”
Dad chuckled and gave him a thumbs-up. “Let me know if you need help. I’ve been known to tame a few wild ones in my day.”
The other man laughed before going back to trying to coax the animal into its new stall. It seemed to have dug in and was tossing its head around. Its ears were pinned back as it tried to get away from Rick.
I wasn’t really sure exactly what happened next. One minute, Dad was talking to Madelyn and called Colt over. He was just starting to move toward them when Rick lost control of the horse. I could see the whites of its eyes as it bucked and reared up on its hind legs.
The poor thing was clearly terrified. But just as I had that thought, things started happening too fast for me to understand what was going on.
All I knew was that Dad was fine in that one minute, but the next?
The next, he was gone.
The horse became totally erratic and bucked in the narrow corridor between the rows of stalls. It tried to get out, but we were on one side, and Rick and a groom were on the other.
It went up on its legs again, and I could only watch with horror when I realized Colt was standing too close to it now.
My dad seemed to realize it at the same time. He lunged forward to push Colt out of the way but ended up underneath Ned’s hooves himself. One of them clipped his head before his body came down right over Dad’s.
A terrifying scream echoed between the bricks. I only realized later it had come from me.
Then strong arms wrapped around my body and dragged me away from Dad, who lay bleeding on the layer of hay. Ned thundered past us, but I barely noticed him.
I need to get to my Daddy. I clawed and scratched at the arms securing me, but they didn’t let me go. A deep, steady voice rang out behind me. “Haven, honey? We need to get you out of here. Someone call an ambulance!”