Stacy McDonald sat cross-legged on her bed, painting her toenails a soft pink. She glanced up at her face in the mirror and stuck out her tongue at the reflected image. She was nineteen, tall and thin. The only thing feminine about me is my hair, she decided. Long, auburn curls framed a delicate face. Her large cobalt blue eyes sparkled like she knew something she wouldn't share.
The phone rang and Stacy grabbed it. “McDonald Ranch, may I help you?”
“Yes, this is Todd Wilson,” the voice said bluntly. “I was just checking on our reservations for tomorrow. Is everything ready? I don't want my parents to be disappointed.”
“Everything is ready,” she purred. “We'll be waiting for you.” She slammed down the phone. What a jerk the son was. His parents had been at the ranch several times. That should tell him something. She hadn't even met him and she already disliked him.
“Stacy, are you upstairs again?”
Whoops, what did Aunt Sara want now? She rolled off her bed and skipped downstairs.
“I'm here, Aunt Sara.” She sauntered into the living room, grabbing an apple from a blue bowl by the sofa.
“Well, it's about time, Honey. Your Uncle Josh needs help in the stable.”
Stacy groaned. “Again? I already helped him earlier.” She chomped on the apple with a vengeance.
Aunt Sara chuckled. “You know how it is, Stacy. Work's always waiting when you live on a ranch. Go on now. Supper's at six.”
She shrugged, tossed the apple into the garbage and jogged slowly to the barn.
“Well there you be, Missy.” Uncle Josh was in his fifties and had been running the ranch for thirty of them. He was tall and straight, broad of shoulder, with a shock of gray hair. Hard work kept him trim and younger than most men his age.
Stacy hugged him. “What do you want me to do now?”
Uncle Josh grinned. “Not much. Just want you to curry old Ben before we call it a night. I'd do it, but we've got those folks comin' tomorrow and I've got to get the stable cleaned up before they arrive.”
Her aunt and uncle didn't run a regular dude ranch. It was a working ranch and only a select few were invited to spend time there. Stacy could never figure out why some folks would spend good money to shovel horse shit, round up strays, and stack hay. Each to his own, she guessed. They didn't even have a swimming pool. You wanted to swim you headed down to the azure river that lazed along nearby.
Stacy was brought to live with her uncle and aunt when her parents died in a small plane crash. That was sixteen years ago. She didn't remember her parents except in small patches of fantasy. She grew up around horses and learned to ride when she was only five. It was a good life, but Stacy always wondered how different her life would have been if her parents had lived.
“They were city folks,” Uncle Josh would reflect, sucking on his unlit pipe. “My brother and I were different as a wolf and a sheep. He was always hungry for the so called finer things in life. I liked it simple. Your Aunt Sara enjoyed livin' in the country, so when we got married, we decided to settle in the Florida panhandle and open a working ranch. Been happy ever since.”
Stacy glanced at her uncle. When she married she'd want someone to be like her uncle; steadfast and true in his love for her. Only he wouldn't live on a ranch. He'd want to travel the world, devour life like a continuous buffet of delights.
After supper and an hour of TV, Stacy headed back upstairs. She stretched out on her bed and contemplated about the family who would be arriving tomorrow. They were from Glen Cove out on Long Island. That old movie “Sabrina”, staring Audrey Hepburn, had been filmed on location there. Now that was a place to live. Okay, so her father was just a chauffeur and they lived over the garage, but Sabrina found a glamorous life in Paris. Stacy dreamed about that happening to her. She brought herself back to the present and the folks who would arrive tomorrow.
Bill Wilson was an investment broker, his wife stayed at home tending her flower beds and growing prize-winning iris. They sure didn't fit the usual guest profile. The only thing she knew about their son was that he was twenty-two and seemingly arrogant. Why would people like that come to a working ranch instead of a plush dude ranch?
At ten the next morning she was on the front porch ready to greet the family who would spend a week at the ranch. Uncle Josh was already approaching them.
“Welcome back Bill and Beth. Pleasure to have you here again,” he greeted the family warmly. He shook everyone's hand, and eyed the son, who seemed awkward in the surroundings.
“You're Todd, right?” Uncle Josh said, as he strolled over to him.
“Yes sir. This is my first time at a working ranch.” His eyes looked over the terrain and his lips twitched.
“Shucks, Todd, just call me Josh. No 'sirs'. When you're here you're family.”
Stacy had been watching from the porch. She wondered about Todd. He was tall and thin, his brown hair neatly combed back off his forehead. The suit he wore screamed expensive. She couldn't picture him in jeans riding a horse. City slicker, that's what he looked like. Stacy hoped she wouldn't have to spend much time with him.
After Uncle Josh jovially herded the family inside and to their rooms, he returned back to the porch.
“Nice family, don't you think? This is the first time they've brought Todd. Said he needed a little toughing up.”
Stacy rolled her eyes .“Just remember that old cliché: you can lead a horse to water but that doesn't mean he'll drink.”
“Ah, I'm leaving that part up to you, Missy. A pretty gal like you could lead a man anywhere.” He winked and gave Stacy a quick hug.
Oh, no, I don't want to lead Todd anywhere,Stacy grimaced. She'd do only what was necessary. She already disliked his city mannerisms.
After lunch, they all headed to the stable where her uncle explained what duties would be expected of them. Bill and Beth were anxious to get started. Todd hung back, a disgusted look wrinkled his brow.
This is going to be a disaster for me,Stacy decided. Still, if Uncle Josh had confidence in her she couldn't let him down, but she wouldn't like it.
As Bill and Beth followed her uncle deeper into the stable, Stacy touched Todd's shoulder.
“Why don't we just head down by the river and get acquainted. I'm gonna be your guide this week and I'd like to know a little more about you.” She begrudgingly flashed her brightest smile. It seemed to work.
Todd heaved sigh of relief. “Great. Why does this place smell so bad?”
“It's a stable, remember? No matter how you work to keep it clean, the odor remains,” she snorted. Oops, can't sound too harsh. Remember he's a paying guest.
They strolled down to the lake and plopped on the lush grass. Todd kept shifting around until he finally settled down.
Stacy laughed. “From now on it's jeans for you, not expensive suits.”
Todd blushed. “Saw right through me, didn't you. I'm used to suits, not jeans. But I'll do my best to adjust.”
As they chatted, Todd relaxed. The soft breeze off the river ruffled his hair and he tried to push it back with his fingers.
“A cowboy hat will take care of that,” Stacy offered.
When Todd grimaced, Stacy decided he was like a new foal who just needed caring for. Maybe she had been too quick jumping to judge him.
They talked about his life in Glen Cove and she explained the ranch and what would be expected of him.
“At least I can ride a horse. Glen Cove has a great riding path and I learned how from a friend. Not sure about the other stuff, though.”
Stacy reached out and touched his hand. “You'll survive. I'll take it easy on you.”
When he looked at her, she noticed how green his eyes were. They had a luminous look of hope and she found herself strangely thinking they'd work it out together.
Stacy's smile softened. “Let's take it easy today. I'll show you around, let you pick out a horse you'd like and get you used to the stable stench.” She suddenly giggled. “I'm so used to it, I don't even notice it any more.” She pushed herself to her feet and held out her hand to Todd.
He grabbed tight and hauled himself up. “Okay, let's get the tour started.”
He gazed in amazement at the seven different horses.
Stacy saw his look. “Lots of them and all different in looks and personality. I think Arabelle might be a good choice. She's used to being ridden by all kinds of people and has learned to be obedient and gentle.”
“Sounds good to me.” Todd pulled out a handkerchief and held it to his nose. “Think I'll ever get used to the stable smell?”
Stacy playfully punched his shoulder. “Bet by tomorrow night you won't notice it at all.”
The rest of the afternoon she showed him how to rack hay, curry a horse, and shovel dung. He nodded and tried to keep up with her.
At six everyone gathered for supper. Aunt Sara knew how to please healthy appetites and there was everything from appetizers to pot roast and vegetables and homemade bread. They finished off the meal with hot apple pie and ice cream.
“That was really great,” Todd announced, looking contented for the first time that day.
Aunt Sara looked pleased. “Now let me explain about our 'chuck wagon' day which comes at the end of your stay. Josh will lead you on horseback to a beautiful valley about fifteen miles from here. Stacy and I will take the chuck wagon and meet you there. We'll have plenty of good food and drink when you arrive.”
Josh added, “And don't worry that it will be too much for you folks. In the next few days we'll teach you everything you need to know about cross country riding. You'll be prepared and it'll be fun.”
Later, Stacy and Todd sat on the porch steps watching the setting sun fill the sky with a kaleidoscope of red, pink and mauve. The ripples on the river were tinted by the hues of the sun.
“It is beautiful here,” Todd admitted. “You don't see sunsets like this back home.”
Stacy hugged her knees. “You know what I'm looking forward to? You in jeans and cowboy boots.”
Their eyes met and Todd's cheeks flamed. “Clothes won't make me a cowboy, but I'll try, and maybe with your help I'll succeed.”
Her hair, fragrant as hyacinths, was right beneath his nose. He reached over and gently twined a strand around his finger. “You're very beautiful you know.”
Stacy jerked back. “Whoa there, city boy. We move slowly down here.”
Todd recoiled as if bitten by a snake. “I- I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to get fresh. I really like you and I guess I got carried away. Still friends?”
Stacy scrambled to her feet and nodded. “Okay, still friends. I'm heading upstairs now. It's been a long day. See you in the morning.”
In the comfort of her bed, Stacy couldn't sleep. Why did she act that way with Todd? It wasn't like he had tried to kiss her. Maybe then she would have had a reason to be annoyed. Or was the fact that he didn't try upsetting her? And nobody had ever called her beautiful before. Stacy tossed and turned until the sheets crumpled around her feet.
Uncle Josh bear-hugged her the next morning. “Well, Missy, are we ready to make cowhands out of city dwellers?”
Stacy gave him a thumbs up. Then her jaw dropped as Todd ambled into the room. He looked great in a blue denim shirt, jeans, and boots.
“Mornin', Stacy,” he grinned, pushing back his cowboy hat.
“Well look at you” she gasped. “Now all we have to do is get those duds dirty.”
Breakfast finished they headed to the stables. To her surprise Todd knew how to saddle up without help. Arabelle whinnied her approval. Stacy quickly saddled up, too, and they headed toward the trail. A cloudless sky and a cool breeze hovered over them as they first trotted, then swung into a full gallop.
Stacy decided she wouldn't have to teach him much about horses. When they finally reached a large palm tree in the middle of nowhere, they stopped and dismounted.
Stacy panted. “I had no idea you could ride that well.”
Todd cocked an eyebrow. “Glen Cove trails, remember? You don't have to be a cowboy to ride.”
They both laughed and the tension they had felt earlier disappeared.
When they finally got back to the stable, Stacy handed him a pitchfork.
“See the bins in front of each stall? Fill each one with hay. Fill them to the top.”
“Okay.” Todd gingerly swung the pitchfork into the hay and started filling the bins.
Stacy reached for the grooming brush. “I'll curry our horses tonight. By the way, you're dropping more hay than you're getting into the bins.”
Todd stuck out his tongue at her. “Don't be so bossy. I'm trying.”
“So how'd you young uns do today?” Uncle Josh asked at supper.
Stacy gave him two thumbs up. “Todd knows more than I thought about horses and he did a fair job shoveling the hay. Mr. and Mrs. Williams, how was your day?”
Beth Williams smiled in between bites of blueberry pie. “It was interesting to say the least. A lot different than planting a garden, but I had fun. Bill loved every minute – even shoveling dung.”
Bill chuckled and slapped his knee. “Hey, that's why I come down here. To get away from my stuffy routine. Nothing like the smell of fresh air combined with stable stench.”
Later, as she crawled into bed, Stacy decided it had been a good day. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson seemed to be happily adapting to the routine. As for Todd, she was actually starting to like his boyish charm. She hugged her pillow and closed her eyes.
A crash of thunder jolted Stacy awake. Thudding rain pelted against the roof and windows. It sounded like the rat-tat-tat of a hundred tiny drums. Stacy shoved herself out of bed and ran to the window. What was that strange glow coming from the stable?
Uncle Josh was bellowing. “Fire in the stable!”
In minutes everyone was dressed and headed toward the smoldering flames ignited by a bolt of lightning.
“Gotta get the horses out,” Joshed yelled, motioning toward the stable.
Stacy and Todd ran ahead of the rest. Soaked by the rain smashing against them they reached the stable and started herding the horses outside. Josh, Sara and the Williams' moved quickly to their side. In minutes all seven horses were safely tethered to a nearby fence.
The lightning had stopped, but the thunder crackled and crashed through the air like a child showing off. Then the thunder finally crept away, leaving only the pelting rain to finally put out the fire.
While the rest huddled on the porch, chilled from the rain, Sara was already in the kitchen making pots of tea and coffee.
Josh squeezed out a wet kerchief and wiped his brow. “We were lucky the rain was so heavy. I don't think the fire did that much damage. We'll know more in the morning.”
When Sara brought out the cups, and pots of tea and coffee, they guzzled it down. At that point it felt like the nectar of the gods to Stacy. She was shaking from the chill air.
Todd put his arm around her. Since he was wet it didn't do much for her chill, but his thoughtfulness warmed her. She liked his disheveled hair, with particles of rain still dripping from it. Their eyes met and Stacy decided he had a certain endearment about him. She reached up and gently wiped away a raindrop still clinging to his chin.
“Okay, folks,” Uncle Josh interrupted, “I think we all better put on some dry clothes and hit the sack. Tomorrow we'll see what the damage is.”
That night Stacy thought about Todd and their day together. He had a subtle charm that she couldn't quite describe. She didn't understand the warm feeling she had when they were together. But I like him, she decided, and buried her face in the pillow.
Next morning they checked out the stable.
Josh was amazed at how little damage had been done. “Well, folks, I guess all that rain helped. Only one stall needs repairing.” He broke off a piece of charred wood.
“I've had some experience with carpentry. I could help you if you want me to.” Todd looked hopefully willing.
Josh rubbed his chin. “Sure could use some help, Todd. Thanks.”
“I'll take care of Mr. and Mrs. Williams” Stacy chimed in. They won't miss a thing. We'll ride, and for a day they won't have to clean the stable.
Beth Williams laughed. “Sounds good to us. Riding and not shoveling all that dung will give us more practice for tomorrow's cross country ride.” She winked at her husband. In return, he put his arm around her and gave her a quick kiss.
Stacy thought it was a sweet gesture. She touched her lips and wondered what it would be like to be kissed by someone you loved.
After they headed out, Josh dug out hammers, nails, fresh lumber and an electric saw.
“You sure you can handle this, Todd?”
Yes sir – I mean Josh, I've always enjoyed working with wood. My dad taught me a lot about carpentry. I even took a class at school. I've built bookcases and a table, so this will be a cinch.”
“You've got a lot of talents I wouldn't have thought.” Josh handed Todd the saw. “Let's get started.”
By supper time, the stall was finished and they headed back to the house. When everyone was gathered around the table, Josh stood up and clinked a spoon against his glass.
“Attention everyone. I want to give credit to Todd for the work he did today. Couldn't have finished it so quickly without him. You've got quite a talented young man there, folks.”
Beth and Bill raised their glasses. “To our son, Todd.”
Stacy seconded the toast, glancing shyly at Todd. “You sure have surprised me these past days.”
Todd reddened, wishing he and Stacy were alone so he could tell her how his time here had changed his attitude about so many things.
Later, when they were on the porch, Todd took Stacy's hand.
“I've had so much fun being with you. I don't have a girlfriend back home, so I'm a little self conscious when I'm around you.”
Stacy squeezed his hand. “I've had fun, too. I had made up my mind not to like you, but all that has changed.”
She moved closer and kissed him on the cheek.
Suddenly Todd's arms were around her, his lips pressed softly against hers. “I've been wanting to do that since the first day.” He waited, strangely restless, for her to speak.
Her eyes scrutinized his face. “I think I did, too” she softly admitted.
She kissed him again and snuggled against his shoulder. It was amazing how well her head nestled there, like it belonged.
“I'm going to miss you,” she sighed.
Todd's hand closed over hers. It wasn't so much what she said. It was the look in her eyes as they met his.
They sat there, not wanting to move. Below them the river was a great foil sheet, yellowed by the moon. Every so often a fish jumped or a bird winged overhead.
Stacy didn't exactly understand how in less than a week's time she could feel this way. Was this first love or only a crush on a young man who came into her life for a little while and then would be gone?
Todd cleared his throat to stop the beating of his heart up under his chest.
“What are we going to do about these feelings, Stacy?”
“I don't know,” she murmured. “After tomorrow you'll be gone and I'll be here at the ranch.”
Todd cupped her face in his hands and gently kissed her. “We'll think of something. I can't just walk away feeling as I do.”
Todd stood up and gently reached for her hand.
“Lets stroll down by the river for a while,” he suggested.
The hushed mantle of night enveloped the river, quieting even the frenzied song of the frogs and crickets. Only the stars burned through the black night as the silvery moon moved slowly across the sky.
The pink glow of dawn was slowly chasing away the dark when they finally said goodnight.
The next afternoon, Stacy and Aunt Sara checked out the chuck wagon. Everything was ready, but where was the group?
Suddenly Josh's Palomino Hercules trotted into view, whinnied, and stomped his hoof on the ground. He tossed his head toward the trail, stomping his hoof over and over.
Alarm swept over Stacy. “Something's wrong, Aunt Sara.”
She vaulted into the saddle. “Call 911, Aunt Sara. Hercules will guide me to the group.”
She galloped off. What only took minutes seemed like hours to her. There they were, huddled around Josh who was stretched flat on the ground.
Todd hurried over to her. “I think he had a heart attack. We didn't want to leave him. Did you call the paramedics?”
Stacy nodded and rushed to her uncle's side. He was breathing heavily but managed a lopsided grin.
“Wasn't expecting this,” he groaned.
Stacy kissed his damp forehead. “Shush, the paramedics will be here soon.”
As if on cue, the sirens sounded and the red truck slid to a stop. Two attendants were at Josh's side giving him oxygen and listening to his heart. Another brought a stretcher.
“We'll take him to Tallahassee Memorial – that's the closest. Anyone want to ride with us?”
Todd took Stacy's hand. “We will.”
As they loaded Josh into the ambulance, Stacy quickly told the Williams how to reach the chuck wagon.
“Just follow the trail. The horses know the way. Tell Aunt Sara to meet us at Cedars.”
Among clucks of despair, Beth hugged Stacy.
“Don't worry about us. Take care of your uncle and we'll all meet you at the hospital.”
The waiting room at Memorial was painted a soft green. Brown, floral couches were spaced around the room. Magazines were heaped on end tables.
Todd held Stacy close while they waited. Aunt Sara and the Williams' burst into the room.
Todd held Stacy close while they waited. Aunt Sara and the Williams' burst into the room.
Sara had been crying but composed herself to ask “What happened? Is he alright?”
Stacy rose to hug her. “We're waiting for the doctor now. We'll know more in a little while. He'll be fine, Aunt Sara, he'll be fine.”
She glanced over at Todd who was murmuring something to his parents.
She and Sara moved closer to hear.
Todd turned to Sara and Stacy.
“He seemed okay when he suddenly clutched his chest and fell off Hercules. I watched Hercules race off and knew he'd show you the way back. We were afraid to leave him and didn't really know what to do.”
A heavy set man dressed in green approached them. “Mrs. McDonald?”
“That's me. Is he going to be alright?”
“I'm Dr. Swartz,” he said quietly. “Your husband almost met his maker today. He's in the operating room now. He'll need a double by-pass, but we'll pull him through.” He nodded at the anxious faces. Why don't you folks go home? This is a long procedure and I'll call you when it's done.”
Sara look around helplessly.
Stacy hugged her tighter. “I think the doctor is right, Aunt Sara. Sitting on these hard couches isn't the answer.”
The afternoon turned into evening while they waited for the doctor's call. Sara busied herself in the kitchen. Beth and Bill tried to watch TV. Todd and Stacy just clung to each other.
The shrill of the phone startled them all. Sara raced to pick it up. They watched as she nodded time and again. When she finally hung up a smile etched across her face.
“He's in recovery now. Everything went well. He's just going to need a lot of rest. Stacy, will you please drive me to the hospital? I'm shaking so I don't think I'd do well behind the wheel.”
Josh was propped up in bed, and grinned slowly when they entered.
“Don't ever say I didn't bring excitement into your life, Sara.”
“I can live without that kind of excitement” she whispered, kissing his forehead.
Stacy stood back, swallowing the rush of tears that threatened. Until that moment, she had never thought how much she loved her aunt and uncle. She always thought of them as simple folks living on a ranch. How stupid she had been. They were proud of their life and the love that had bonded them together through all the years.
Dr. Schwartz entered and checked Josh's pulse and vital signs.
“Josh will need to stay here for a few days. When he gets home he'll need rest, but he's going to be just fine.”
Sara heaved a sigh of relief. “We better go now, my darling, and let you rest. We'll be back early tomorrow.” She bent and kissed his lips.
Josh reached up and fondled her face. “I love you, woman, never forget that.”
Back at the ranch they explained how things were to Todd and the Williams.
Beth reached over and ruffled her son's hair.
“We'll have to leave tomorrow” Beth said, “but Todd is going to stay. He knows you'll need help and he's determined to do his share. Bill and I agree with his decision.”
Stacy rushed over and hugged him. “Thank you,” she whispered against his ear.
“Are you sure, Todd?” Sara looked at him.
Todd reached out and squeezed Sara's hand. “I sort of got used to being around here. I know it'll be a lot of work, but I can handle it. I want to do this. With Stacy's help we'll keep this place in tip-top shape for Josh until he's strong again.”
Stacy lay awake long after she went to bed, thinking about the day. Why did she always dream for a life away from the ranch? Her happiness was always here, in small, gentle ways she took for granted. She closed her eyes remembering how Uncle Josh had cradled Aunt Sara's face in his gruff hands. She thought of Todd and what their future might hold. Two people, if they have each other, what more could they want?