After spending a day in Edmonton we headed out into the sticks to pay a visit to Ash's Auntie Bobby and Uncle Billy's (or was it Auntie Billy and Uncle Bobby) ranch in Vermilion, AB. We had been invited for a steak supper. "Yum!" Right? Wrong. I was a vegetarian. And Billy and Bobby? They raised beef for a living. I was terrified that that this big burly rancher and his sweet but tough little wife were going to throw me out the door when I told them that I didn't eat meat. And so the plan was to, as inconspicuously as possible, slip each bite of my steak onto Ash's plate. I had used every threat I could muster to ensure that Ash kept the tornado incident out of our dinner conversation.
In an attempt to stick to "safe" topics I told them of how I had gotten up early that morning to watch a beautiful Alberta sunrise and proceeded to joke, without thinking of who I was talking to, that I had been so excited to explore the town that I had drug Ash out of bed a little before noon, much to her dismay. Uncle Billy, a typical rancher, considered waking at any hour after 6am blasphemy and was horrified that any kin of his would be so lazy! He growled, "You got up at what time?" If looks could kill, Ash's glare would have had me dead on the spot. Her retaliation came quickly. "Well, she is a vegetarian!" Pointing at me with conviction. Billy and Bobby both turned their blazing eyes in my direction, staring at me like I was the Antichrist. Without saying a word, I picked up my fork, took a big bite of steak and let my hardy, "Mmmmm" fill the silence. I grinned at Ash. She looked back at me with intense dislike. I just about choked when I saw her eyes light and mouth curl into a twisted smile. Oh no! Her sweet voice, edged with vindication, carried across the table. "Hey, Chels', seen any wind funnels lately?" The story and subsequent laughter filled the room and successfully broke the tension. We ended up having a wonderful visit and left with a warm welcome to return, despite the fact that I had failed to digest their steak.
The next day we were scheduled to head out to a friend of the family's ranch to go for a trail ride. I was, of course, exhilarated at the prospect of "ridin' the range". We headed out of town and drove for a half an hour before turning onto a yellow dirt road that we spent another quarter hour on. I couldn't imagine living that far from nowhere. It was beautiful country, with wheat fields as far as the eye could see. As we neared the farm we passed what appeared to be a thousand acres of tiny sunshine yellow canola flowers.
A petite girl named Leslie, about the same age as ourselves, came out to greet us when we arrived. She was friendly and shy, wearing Wranglers and a baseball cap, with a big smile and an easy going manner. I felt comfortable with her at once. She introduced us to her horses. Ash had always been a better rider than I was, so she was quick to pick out the big black, high headed gelding that was Leslie's barrel horse. Leslie had a young little sorrel quarter horse filly in training that she was to ride, which left me with Domino, the Appy. As a rule, I don't get along with Appys. I have nothing against spotted horses (totally, not true but I am trying to be diplomatic here!) but for some reason every single Appy I have ever ridden has bucked me off or done something to make me look like a total ass. I had hoped Domino would prove to be the exception. He looked out at me through big brown eyes that at least seemed soft and sweet. His leopard spotted hide was stretch taunt over his 15.2 hand bulk and his lower lip hung flaccidly. I stood in front of him and rubbed his forehead for a moment, silently praying that I when I arrived back at this spot I would still be in firm possession of my self respect.
All went surprisingly well for the first half our or so. Domino seemed to be more plodder than plotter and followed along behind the black and red hinds of the other horses. We walked along a trail that bordered the hay fields and into the endless stretch of horizon before heading into a thicket of trees that grew along a slough's edge. The narrow path wound its way through uneven ground, cross hatched with heavy branches, stumps and fallen trees. Leslie called behind her to warn Ash and I that, in a particularly narrow and very steep part of the path a head, there was a large tree that we would have to jump. I felt my stomach sink as I looked down at my western saddle. A few months before I had nearly impaled myself on a saddle horn while jumping just such an obstacle. I watched as the other two horses loped up along the narrow path and nimbly jumped the log that rose at least two and half feet off the ground. I kicked Domino forward to a lumbering canter and set him at the log. I held my breath as he closed in and felt him tense beneath me as he eyed the impending obstacle. Suddenly and without warning, he stopped dead in his tracks. I looked up to see Ash and Leslie impatiently waiting for me on the other side. I turned my spotted nag around and headed back a ways before turning and kicking him hard, sending him off towards the log once again. This time he stopped about three feet away. I kicked. I poked. I over-undered. Domino didnt budge. On one hand I was doing everything in my power to send him forward but on the other, the energy of my body was sending him exactly the opposite message. I wanted nothing more to do with jumping that log than he did. I turned him away again and tried once, then twice more. The girls were shouting encouragement and advice but this served to do nothing more than further my embarrassment and wind me up even tighter yet. Nothing I did could get that bloody Appy over the log. Their encouragements turned to frustration and Leslie offered to get off and ride him over for me. I insisted that we could merely ride up the mountain, through the thick bramble and around the fallen tree. Before they could argue I kicked my mount up and into the the twisted jumble of brush. The branches ripped at my face and tore at my cloths but I pushed on. Frustration spurred me and humiliation overwhelmed to strengthen my resolve so that at last my directions went unquestioned. My temper was no match for any horse, even as stubborn and thick headed of one as Domino. We came down on to the path on the other side of the log a few minutes later. Leslie, kind but practical looked at me like, "what an idiot..." before turning the horses and leading us onward. I followed behind, tight lipped and grumpy, oblivious to their cheerful nattering.
We followed the path until it led downwards into the gully and next to the dark and stagnant waters below. There the path seemed to end at the slough's edge. Explaining how the trail had been flooded a few weeks ago, Lelsie pointed to where the path continued, on the far bank, some twenty feet away. We were to try to follow her as much as possible as she remembered where the high ground was but warned that it was narrow path that fell off steeply on either side. Her pony sank belly deep as she trudged through the muddy waters. Ash's mount was much taller so fared better than the smaller horse but still struggled to keep his footing. I took up the rear. At first Domino seemed to easily pick his way but as we walked further on the footing seemed to give more and more and we seemed to be falling deeper and deeper into the water. As we neared the half way point, Domino and I sank like a rock. The black water, topped with green algae rushed up and around my waist as Domino leaped up and down through the waters and on to the far bank. When we finally stood on dry ground I was so embarrassed that I couldn't bring myself to look up into the other girl's faces. When I heard them laughing, I took a breath, swallowed my pride and lifted my face. In my struggle, I hadn't noticed that Ash and Leslie had also both gone down as well. To my surprise (and secretly, elation) they stood, soaking wet, covered in slime and giggly hysterically. We laughed until the tears rolled down our grit smeared cheeks. By the time we rode down the drive to Leslie's home, our jeans had dried stiff with crust and our butts were glued to the saddle. Ash and I drove back into town, the sun setting in front of us in companionable silence, smelling of swamp, frog eggs and horses. I never saw Leslie again but will always remember her laugh and that stupid spotted horse.