“A little hard work is good for horses, and wayward souls, too.”
By Sarah Grable
Carey snorted, choking a little on the cloud of dust that rose in the wake of the bus. He stood at the mouth of a sweeping packed-dirt driveway, flanked by ancient stone pillars. A patinaed iron sign announced that he had arrived at Applewood Ridge. Hills rolled away to distant snow-capped peaks, and there was no other sign of humanity besides the road and the vanishing bus he had arrived by. At least the scenery was easy on the eyes.
Another cloud of dust rose along the horizon, where the driveway vanished into the hills. Carey hefted his bag over his shoulder as an aging pickup emerged from the cloud and came to a rattling stop in front of him. The window rolled down.
“You McReedy?” the driver barked. A chill that Carey couldn’t quite rationalize ran down his spine. A black cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses hid most of the driver’s craggy face.
“Yeah,” Carey replied.
“That’s ‘yes, sir,’” the driver snapped, making Carey jump inside his skin. “Or ‘yes, Mr. Whalen.’ Or maybe if you someday manage to find my good side, ‘yes, Lightning.’ Get in, Sonny. Evening chores don’t do themselves.” Lightning Whalen spat a wad of chew out onto the dirt.
Alrighty then, Carey thought, mustering all of his will to keep from rolling his eyes as he circled the truck to open the passenger side door.
“What’re you doing?” Whalen snarled. Carey nearly dropped his bag. “Get in the back!”
“In the back?!” Carey protested in spite of himself. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Maybe for a city slicker juvenile delinquent,” Whalen spat again. “In the back, or walking back. Your choice, Sonny.”
Carey did roll his eyes as he hopped up into the bed, avoiding the jagged patches of rust that reached out to snag his clothes. The truck roared as Whalen gassed it, and they trundled up the driveway.
Carey stared in wonder as they approached the main compound of Applewood Ridge, culture shock rising. The difference between the log house and outbuildings couldn’t have been any further from the dingy urban neighborhood that he had grown up in. The autumn air was fresh and crisp. Meadows sparsely dotted with cattle and horses flanked the driveway, hardly a person to be seen. The truck cruised up to a rectangular clapboard building and braked sharply, jostling Carey from his squatting perch in the bed.
“Welcome home,” Whalen barked.
Carey grimaced and stumbled down from the truck.
“Hey,” a voice cut in. Carey looked up to see a burly kid in a flannel shirt and dark crew cut holding up a hand in greeting.
“This is Bishop,” Whalen said, gesturing. “He’ll get you set up. See you at slop time.”
Without ceremony, he revved the truck and laid patches of rubber on the gravel as he departed.
“Is he always like that?” Carey asked, pointing over his shoulder at the retreating truck with his thumb as he climbed the steps.
“Yeah, he sucks,” Bishop said with a shrug. “The good news is, if you can avoid ticking him off, it isn’t that bad here. Hard work, but that’s supposed to be the point, isn’t it? Working off our debt to society? Anyway, welcome to the bunkhouse.”
Carey followed Bishop inside and sighed. It reminded him of every military movie he had ever seen. Bunk beds lined the two long walls, two metal lockers standing at the foot of each bed. Everything was meticulously tidy. Boys milled and lounged around, far fewer than the number of bunks suggested might be on the ranch.
“This one’s yours,” Bishop said, kicking the corner of the nearest bunk. “Bottom mattress, left-hand locker. Toilets and showers are at the back. Breakfast is at five a.m. You’re with me after, unless and until Lightning says otherwise.”
Carey nodded, plonked his bag on the bed, and began to unpack. It was a short process, and a few minutes later he was stretching out on his bunk. No sooner had he settled into the lumpy mattress did he hear the clanging of the dinner bell.
He groaned and joined the almost trancelike procession of kids out of the bunkhouse, following the flow toward a canvas-covered wagon and a cluster of picnic tables.
“We eat outside?” he asked no one in particular.
“Yeah,” a skinny kid in a Van Halen shirt with dishwater blond hair down to his shoulder blades said. “For a few more weeks. When the weather turns cold, we’ll carry trays back to the bunkhouse. I’m Garret, by the way. I’ve got the bunk above yours.” He touched a knuckle to his brow.
“Carey,” Carey replied.
“So, what are you here for?” Garret asked as they stepped up to the wagon, where a counter was laid out with pots of beans and meat, stacks of corn tortillas, and baskets of gnarled, half-wild apples.
“Got caught shoplifting one too many times,” Carey replied, “and my tagging record didn’t help my case. You?”
“My parents signed me up for this paradise,” Garret said, plopping a spoonful of refried beans onto his plate with venom. “Said that it was supposed to ‘straighten me out.’ D’you believe that?”
“Parents suck,” Carey offered perfunctorily, filling his plate and following Garret to one of the tables.
As they dug in, a shrill whistle split the air. The kids swiveled in unison to see an older woman with streaky gray hair under her cowboy hat with her fingers still in her mouth. Lightning Whalen stood behind her, arms crossed, sunglasses still hiding his eyes even as the sun sank toward the horizon.
“Good work today, everyone!” the woman called out. There was a note of sharp hoarseness in her voice, like she spent a lot of time making herself heard. “You already have your assignments for tomorrow’s work, so let’s get a good rest and hit it just as hard at sunup. We have a new ranch hand joining us,” she gestured toward Carey, who felt his face blaze red, “and Lightning tells me that we’re expecting another new horse tomorrow, so those of you who are interested make sure that you sign up to help get him settled.” Her attention shifted, her keen gaze settling on Garret. “Garret, come visit my cabin after supper.”
Garret nodded, meeting her eye and uttering a soft “yes’m.”
“No Ms. Jennings,” the kids chorused without Carey. He mouthed the phrase silently. The woman, Ms. Jennings, nodded and left them to their supper.
* * *
The next morning started earlier than any day Carey had ever experienced.
“Come on, Dude, we’re gonna be late,” Bishop grumbled, kicking Carey’s bed frame to rouse him.
“What time is it?” Carey grimaced, trying to dodge the beam of the flashlight in Bishop’s hand.
“I told you, breakfast is at five a.m. If you don’t join the living, we’re gonna miss it.”
Carey got out of bed and peered into the upper bunk.”
“He’s good,” Carey muttered as he pulled on his boots. “I didn’t even notice him come to bed or get up. How’d he make his bed without shaking mine?”
“Who?” Bishop asked.
“He’s gone,” Bishop said.
“What do you mean, gone?”
Bishop shrugged. “It happens. Kids don’t usually leave here with much ceremony. His parents probably sent for him. Come on, if we don’t move it, we get to work all day on no breakfast.”
Breakfast turned out to be a slab of sausage on a crumbly biscuit and a splash of black coffee. Carey and Bishop collected theirs and went directly to the horse pens, where a small crowd was forming. Bishop strolled right up to the fence and rested a boot on the lowest rail. Lightning Whalen stood just inside the gate, clipboard in hand, shouting kids’ names and assigning them to horses.
“Bishop, you’re on Twister. Help the new guy saddle Hopper.”
Bishop nodded and climbed over the fence, motioning for Carey to follow.
“What’s with the yellow horse?” Bishop asked, gesturing toward a leggy animal with a pale gold coat jogging frantically through the herd and along the fence. “I don’t recognize him.”
“New one,” Lightning barked from behind his mirrored sunglasses. “I’m taking him out myself. A little hard work is good for a horse, and wayward souls, too.”
In less than half an hour and with Bishop’s considerable assistance, Carey had Hopper, a blotchy brown gelding with a dozy face, saddled, and the two of them rode out.
“We’re checking fences,” Bishop said. “There are tools in the saddlebags. Should take us until lunch, longer if we find something that needs fixing.”
Carey nodded and clumsily urged Hopper forward to follow Bishop out into the fields.
The day passed, and late in the afternoon they returned, sore, scratched, and tired, to the compound, the main pasture fence clear and repaired. Bishop snagged Carey halfway out the stable door, on his way back to the bunkhouse showers, and pulled him back to help rub down the horses and clean the tack. As the sun dipped below the horizon, Bishop proclaimed them done and led the bone-tired Carey back toward the dinner wagon. He didn’t care that the bland food was identical to the previous day’s dinner. He hardly tasted it.
Ms. Jennings’ addressed them briefly again, flanked by Whalen, still in his sunglasses. It was a reminder to keep up the good work, and a quick rundown of the next day’s assignments. Carey was with Bishop again, but they were assigned to clean the barns.
Three weeks passed, and Carey fell into an uneasy sort of routine. He and Bishop were split up after the tenth day, and Carey got tasks to complete on his own. He kept his head down, shoving his constant edginess to the back of his mind, and got through each day of his sentence one at a time. More kids vanished, to all appearances sent home, but never with any warning, ceremony, or acknowledgment of their departure. New horses arrived, and Whalen carefully managed the process of breaking them in and putting them to work on the ranch. One, a striking dark bay with a placid, workmanlike temperament, was assigned to Carey as his project soon after his arrival. Eventually, even the horses cycled away, sent off to jobs somewhere else.
Carey realized in the fourth week that he hadn’t seen Bishop for a while. A couple of days later, a heavyset redheaded boy took over Bishop’s bunk.
At dinner one day, as Halloween approached, Ms. Jennings appeared, flanked by Lightning Whalen, as usual. She went through her typical end-of-day address, including something that kicked Carey’s internalized unease into full-blown, nameless worry.
“Carey McReedy?” she called his name out, her hawkish eyes catching his and not letting go. “Come visit my cabin after supper.”
Carey nodded to mask the shivering; his mouth was still full of refried beans.
He finished his meal and made his way to Ms. Jennings’ cabin, joints shaking. The door opened as he raised his hands to knock, and Ms. Jennings and Whalen looked out at him from the threshold, staring him down like American Gothic. Carey flinched.
“Good evening, Mr. McReedy,” Ms. Jennings said, an unsettling smile on her mouth. “You’re riding out the ridge with Lightning and me tonight.”
“Um, okay,” Carey said guardedly as she brushed past him out of the cabin.
“Come on,” Whalen said, his tone brusque as he led the way around the back of the cabin, where three horses stood saddled. Carey noted that the one Whalen mounted was the same anxious yellow-coated creature from the pens on his first morning. He thought he saw a cold smirk cross Whalen’s face under sunglasses that reflected only cloud-filtered moonlight.
“Get your hop along, boy,” Ms. Jennings said, swinging aboard the stocky bay that Carey had worked with for the past few weeks. Carey nodded and recognized the third horse as Hopper, his usual assigned mount.
The three of them rode out at a lope, Whalen leading the way down a narrow, winding trail through the brush, Ms. Jennings right on his tail. Carey pushed Hopper to keep up the pace, marveling at how the two of them navigated in the darkness. They rode on, the terrain becoming rougher, sloping upward toward the apple tree-crowned ridge that gave the ranch its name.
Whalen and Ms. Jennings reined in their horses sharply and dismounted as they arrived in the ancient orchard. Carey mimicked them and gasped as the clouds parted under the moon, bathing the place in silver light. He pivoted on his heel, taking in the scene, the gnarled apple trees planted in spiraling circles around him.
“Have an apple, Sonny,” Whalen said, ice in his voice as he reached up and pulled a late-season apple from a nearby branch. The grizzled cowboy tossed the apple to Carey, who caught it in one hand, and marveled at the smooth, perfect shape of the fruit and the red of its skin before he bit into it.
The next thing that Carey knew, Whalen was cinching a halter around his face and dallying him to the horn on the yellow horse’s saddle.
“Carey? It’s Carey, right?” the yellow horse squealed, a childlike quaver in his familiar voice.
“Garret? Is that you?”
“Settle down!” Whalen barked, swinging into the saddle and hauling them both around, back to the path.
“Go easy on them, Lightning,” Ms. Jennings said through a little laugh. “They’ll do no good if they’re sour and unmanageable.”
“If they weren’t already sour and unmanageable, they wouldn’t be here,” Whalen spat, removing his sunglasses. Carey’s coat twitched all over, and he reflexively sat back against the dally rope to get away from the red demon eyes, glowing like coals where the mirrored lenses had been. The halter bit into his cheeks and poll as he fought to get away, terror taking over.
“Oy!” Whalen barked, and Ms. Jennings rode up behind him, popping Carey on the rump with the end of her rein to get him moving forward.
“Just move, Carey!” Bishop’s voice was steady and even from Ms. Jennings’ bay, his ears drooping in resignation. “It doesn’t help!”
“Step it up, Sonny,” Ms. Jennings said. “A little hard work is good for horses, and wayward souls, too.” She spurred Bishop and cantered past. Carey snorted, choking a little on the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.