Kate Levins watched as the white horse trailer backed towards the grey metal gate she was holding open. She could hear the frightened horse inside, screaming and slamming against the sides. She watched as her best friend, Rob Carey, threw the trailer door open.
A grey blur exploded into the arena. Kate watched as the stallion galloped round and round, searching for an exit. His dappled coat must have been beautiful once, but now it was dry and thin, as was his long, once-thick mane. His dark legs churned, swerving and pivoting in excitement. The mustang stallion had been ruined by bad treatment and hard riding. Now he had come to hope ranch for healing, and hope. Kate only hoped he would let them help him.
As soon as the trailer pulled away, she slammed the gate home, and went to stand beside Rob on the rail.
“Some horse,” he said quietly. “Must have been beautiful once.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “And he still can be. Now that he’s ours, I’m going to do everything to help him that I can.”
Rob glanced at her. “Don’t get your hopes up, Kate. He’s been hurt bad by humans. We may have to let him go.”
Kate turned to face him. “I will heal him.” She whispered fiercely. “It can be done.”
Rob said no more, just shrugged. Kate could see the worry in his brown eyes. And she knew why it was there. Levins, herself included, were known to be incredibly stubborn.
“I will.” She growled. “Just see if I don’t.”
Rob shrugged his shoulders again.
“Why can’t you believe me!?” Kate asked.
He turned to look at her. “Because I’ve seen mustangs before, Kate. Some of them, especially stallions, are….wild.”
“They’re wild horses, Rob.”
“I know, but some get…..crazy. Mad. Loco, whatever you want to call it. He’s a valuable stallion, being almost pure Spanish, but your grandfather won’t hesitate to put him down if he hurts you, Kate.”
She glared at him. Why did he have to be such a realist? “I will fix him!” She snapped. She had to. She couldn’t let him go, like her mother and father had. She had to heal him.
Kate bit her lip and winced as she felt blood trickle down her chin. She reached up a hand to wipe it away, but it still stung, just like Rob’s words. You can’t expect to heal him, he’d said just before leaving yesterday. He’s wild. Loco. Mad. Your grandfather won’t hesitate…if he hurts you….
She shook the thoughts from her head and continued stabbing the hay bale with her pitchfork. She could heal the stallion, couldn’t she? She had healed Mrs. Parker’s rescue mare. She had trained Devin’s wild colt, hadn’t she? What was the difference?
“Katy bird? How’re you today?” Kate whirled at the sound of the old lady’s soft voice, and sighed when she saw who it was, relaxing and sticking the pitchfork back in the bale.
“Hello Mrs. Martin.” She smiled. “I’m fine. How are you?” Kate spoke loudly so the partially deaf woman could hear her.
“As well as I ever am.” Mrs. Martin peered up at her from beneath her huge straw hat that she wore religiously during the hot summer months. “You seem a bit jumpy today. Something wrong?”
Kate shook her head. “No, you just surprised me, Mrs. Martin. I thought you were Rob.”
For some reason unknown to Kate, Mrs. Martin smiled. “I see, I see. How is your friend, anyways?”
“Fine.” Kate muttered. “Being his usual realist self.”
“I see.” Mrs. Martin repeated. She then made her goodbyes, and hobbled off to the kitchen where Kate knew Emera, the old housekeeper-grandmother that had been with them since her own mother had died not two weeks after her birth, was waiting with a cup of tea and a head full of gossip on flowers, the Miller’s new baby, and the comings and goings of Hope Ranch.
Kate sighed again as she watched her leave, but stiffened when she saw the dark blue old dodge pulling into the driveway. Rob hopped out, dressed in his usual jeans-and-button-up-shirt combination, and immediately headed her way. It was only then that Kate saw he had something in his arms.
“A kitten!” She cried when he drew near, the ragged little grey creature clawing and biting at his arms. She reached over and took it, smiling. “Where did you find the poor thing? I don’t remember Ember carrying any time soon.”
His grin faded. “I came up on some man on my way here. Caught this one in a live trap, and was going to dump him in the river, so I took him. Cost me twenty bucks though.”
Kate stared at him. “What kind of person would do that? A kitten won’t hurt anybody.”
Rob shrugged. “I’ve never seen him before. Looked like he was from outta town, but he said he has a ranch up the river from us. Said the kitten was eatin’ all his chickens.”
“Eating chickens!” Kate huffed. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. A kitten can’t eat more than a chicken every week, and this little thing shouldn’t even be eating chickens yet! He’s no more than three weeks old.”
Rob nodded, a small smiled tugging at the corners of his mouth. With mock seriousness, he added, “Yes, and I thought since you have such a heart for animals, you could at him to your–what shall we call it–brigade?”
Kate punched his arm. “Ha ha. Just because I have a lot of pet’s doesn’t mean–”
“A lot! More like, let’s see….ten cats, three dogs, two useless horses, and who knows how many horses “in training” that you’ve rescued from auctions.” He grinned at her. “Face it. You’re a hopeless softy for animals. You see a stray cat or a lost dog, and whoosh! Momma-mode is go.”
“Fine. But that still doesn’t explain your old mutt.” Rob had a useless, fat, old hound dog that had done nothing but eat, sleep, and bark at the moon for the last two years of it’s life.
“Hey, Dowser’s my room-mate, okay? I do the chores, he watches the bed.”
“Some partnership.” She hesitated, but then spoke. “Rob…did you really mean what you said yesterday? About the stallion?”
He glanced at the ground, but then looked her squarely in the eyes. “Yes. I did.”
“Why do you think I can’t do it?” Kate demanded.
His eyes softened. “I don’t think you can’t do it. I just don’t want you to get hurt doing it.”
Even in his soft tones, Kate could sense the worry in his voice, and resentment built up in her. She wasn’t a child anymore. She knew what she was doing this time, and told him so.
“Kate,” he replied softly, and she listened because he sounded to sincere.
“I don’t doubt you can heal him.” His voice was so soft, it was almost hard to hear.
“Then why are you saying this?” Kate exclaimed.
“Because….” he hesitated, ducking his head shyly. “Because the one time I wasn’t there to help you, the one time I couldn’t help you, you got hurt. And–” he looked away “–I’m not letting that happen again. Ever.” His voice grew deeper as he went on. “No matter what.”
Kate squinted up at him. “Fine. But you can’t stop me from trying.”
Rob shook his head, a bit of his old grin coming back. “No. But I can be there to help you.”
Kate stared up at him. What had changed between them that she was actually glad to have his help? A year ago, being her stubborn self, she would have turned him down just like that. But now…
“Thanks. I’d like your help.”
He smiled shyly. “Great.”
“But,” she added with a sly grin, “No getting in my way.”