Written in 63 minutes.
Cameron climbed up the railing of the fence until he could rest his elbows over the top, Jason with a steadying hand on his back until he was sure Cameron had his balance. It was nearly the end of the summer now, the hottest days of August dragging into September when the nights, at least, would begin to cool off.
After three months on the ranch, Cameron had grown an inch and his face had begun to slim down, sliding slowly from baby to child. He’d already changed so much from the small child who had been curled up in his mother’s lap that day in late May. His bright blue eyes were focused on what was happening in the middle of the paddock — since the first day Elizabeth had begun to work with the horses, Cameron had haunted their every step, all but obsessed with the stables.
Elizabeth had worked wonders with the stallion over the last few weeks, and if she’d been an experienced rider, it’d be her up on his back right now. And it should be Jason, he thought with some regret, but the horse needed to be worked daily and he still had four months left until a new sheriff could be sworn in. So, instead, Elizabeth stood at the bridle, keeping the horse calm and Johnny had swung up into the saddle.
She smiled and laughed up at the stable hand, and Jason ignored the stab of irritation in his stomach. Not jealousy, he knew, but simple envy that Johnny had the freedom to spend all day at the ranch. His grandmother had meant well, and sometimes, Jason hadn’t minded spending long hours in town, but over the last few months, every morning he woke and had to ride away from the ranch—and his family, he acknowledged—he resented it more.
“I wanna ride the big horse,” Cameron told Jason. “Papa, make Mama let me.”
“Not yet,” Jason cautioned his son—and that was getting easier, he thought. To just look at the child and feel the warmth, the sense of posession. He hadn’t known Cameron as a baby, hadn’t been part of creating him, but through a benevolent quirk of fate, he’d have the raising of him. He ruffled Cameron’s blond hair. “And not on one that big. Not to start.”
Cameron scowled, then looked back at Elizabeth as she led Dusty around the training yard, Johnny simply letting the horse get used to his weight. She’d worked with other horses in the stable, Jason knew, and had knack for it, but Dusty was her favorite. He looked forward to the day he could give the horse to her as a gift.
“I scooped the poop,” Cameron said darkly, drawing Jason’s attention. His mouth was turned up in a sulk. “You said I scoop poop, I ride.”
“I said if you learned to take care of the horses, you’d be able to learn when the time came—” Jason sighed. And he was putting off the inevitable. Cameron was mad for horses, just as he’d been. He cupped his hands around his mouth so that his voice would carry across the yard. “Elizabeth!”
She turned towards them, her brows raised.
“We’ll be in the stables,” he told her, and she raised a hand in recognition, then looked back at the horse.
Jason lifted Cameron off the fence and set him on the ground. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”
“Not more poop,” the little boy muttered, but he put his hand in his father’s and followed him happily. The only place Cameron liked more than the stables was the lake, and they’d already spent the morning swimming. After a few more floating sessions, Cameron had advanced quickly and now moved through the water like a fish. It had taken he—and his mother—barely three months to shed the remnants of their city life.
Jason stopped in front of a stall and lifted Cameron to sit on the railing of the empty stall next door, then curled Cameron’s hand around the post to keep his balance. “Stay there for a minute, all right?”
Jason unlatched the stall and took the reins of the pony that sat inside. She was a brown mare, no more than thirteen hand height—Jason was taller—but she still towered over Cameron by more than double his size. “In another year two or two,” he said, “or when you’ve grown another foot,” he clarified, “this is Cinder. She’ll be yours.”
Cameron’s eyes were wide. “You—mine?” he asked, almost breathless. “My horse?”
“Cinder is a pony,” Jason said. “She’s six, and she’ll take good care of you until you’re old enough for a horse.” He tipped his head to the tack room. “Come on, I’ll show you how to saddle her. You start taking care of some of her chores. And maybe your mother can show you how to walk her. Never alone,” he told Cameron, looping Cinder’s reins over the post so that he could set Cameron on his feet. He crouched down, met the boy’s eyes. “It’s very important that you follow the rules so you can keep yourself and Cinder safe. You’re not old enough or tall enough yet to be on your own with the horses.”
Cameron nodded soberly. “Mama said so. And you said so. Rules. But—” His shining eyes looked at the horse again. “But I can see her. And I scoop her poop. It’s okay. I’ll do it.” He threw his arms around Jason’s neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll be good. I’ll be the best.”
“You already are.” Jason squeezed Cameron back, then got to his feet. “Come on. I’ll show you how to saddle a pony and then we’ll try her out.”
Johnny swung a leg over Dusty’s back and hopped to the ground, then swept off his hand, his brown hair plastered to his head with sweat. “He sure does take the energy out of you,” he said, stroking the side of Dusty’s belly.
Six weeks earlier, the horse might have reared up or bit Johnny for the audacity, but the horse just stood calmly by, enjoying the way Elizabeth stroked her hands down his long head.
“He’s eager to please,” she told Johnny. “You can see it, can’t you? It’s why he took so long to trust us—”
“To trust me.” Johnny plopped the hat back on his head. “You had him at the first word. But yeah, I get that. Old Man Coleman did a number on him and horses ain’t that different from people, you know. You smack them around enough, they start flinching from everyone.” He spat at the ground. “But that’s enough for him today, I think—” He turned and looked across the yard. “And you don’t want to miss that—”
Elizabeth turned to follow Johnny’s outstretched arm and her eyes lit up. Jason was entering the training yard, one hand fisted around a leading string and the other resting lightly on the back of a saddle. And her son, Cameron, in the saddle on the back of the sweet pony she’d looked after a time or two since her work in the stables had begun. His grin was wide, his little hands tightly curled around the pommel.
“I wondered when he’d put the little guy up on Cinder,” Johnny said, folding his arms, smiling himself. “Your boy is crazy for these horses, you know.”
“He’s crazy for everything about Jason. Fishing, swimming, horses—he wanted to be a sheriff for a whole week,” Elizabeth murmured. “But yes, the horses seem to be sticking. And of course, the pony is a perfect size for Cameron to learn on. I’d wondered why Jason had a pony in the midst of all the others—”
“Oh, he’s had Cinder for a few years now.” Johnny’s expression sobered. “Bought him just after the nephew took his first steps. Right out there by the fences, did you know?” he said to Elizabeth who blinked at him.
“No, I didn’t—”
“Always felt bad for the kid,” Johnny continued. “The brother—AJ—married some socialite from San Francisco, and he never liked being west of the mountains. Spent all his time back at the company offices in town. But the old man—Edward Morgan—” Johnny clarified, “— made it clear that the heir would stay here. Hell of a thing — they were in town just for a week and caught that cholera.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, Jason brought Michael out here every few weeks and bought that there pony for him. Kid never got to use it.”
Elizabeth’s heart ached for the loss. What would she do if she lost her baby? “I’m surprised he didn’t sell the pony.”
“Nah, couldn’t bring himself to do it. But it’s good that he kept her on. He spent a lot of time making sure it was a good, calm pony,” Johnny told Elizabeth. “Your boy will be safe and sound.”
“I know—” Elizabeth exhaled slowly, then looked back at Dusty, giving the horse one last stroke. “You mind putting him up for the afternoon?”
“Not at all, missus. You go enjoy your boy.”
Before the day Jason put Cameron up on Cinder, the little boy had been equally obsessed with every horse in the stable. After, all his attention was pointed at his horse (it didn’t matter how many times it was explained to him that she was a pony and that was different). He woke up, and raced through his breakfast so he could help Johnny or who ever was working that morning feed Cinder. And then he helped clean out her stall, and if there was time, Johnny or Jason showed him how to put the saddle on her—and how to care for it.
And every night before Elizabeth tucked him in for bed, Cameron insisted on being measured because if he could just get to forty-eight inches, Papa would let him actually start riding lessons.
One night, as September drew to a close, Cameron pouted and demanded she measure again. “You’re wrong,” he told her crossly. “I’m four and a half. Papa said.”
“That doesn’t mean you’ve grown, darling,” Elizabeth said, but dutifuly lined him up against the door frame of his bedroom and made a mark where his head rested. “Look. Just the same.”
Cameron’s lips stuck out, and his eyes were damp. “I’ll never be big enough.” The tears slid down his cheeks and he sniffled.
“Sweetheart—” Elizabeth sighed, smoothed his hair back. “You know if you were ready, Papa would let you start lessons.”
“I-I know—b-b-but you get to ride—a-and y-your h-horse is m-much—” Cameron’s words came out in scattered sobs as he sank to the ground and put his head against his knees. “Just wanna to be big.”
Elizabeth sighed and spied Jason climbing the last set of stairs. “I’m taller than you, my love—”
“Not a lot,” he sniffled. And that was true—but she was still a foot and a half taller than him, even at five foot four. “I wanna ride.”
“You get to—”
“Led around like a baby.” Cameron raised his head, angry now. “Not a baby! No more!” He glared at Jason who had joined them. “Papa, I big enough.”
Elizabeth made a face and silently shook her head at Jason who crouched down. “Not yet, Cam,” he told him. “You need to be tall enough to reach the stirrups. It’s not about being old enough. You’re not a baby. But if your feet can’t reach, you can’t tell Cinder when to stop. Or how to slow down or speed up.”
Cameron furrowed his brow at Jason’s sensible words. “Stirrups,” he repeated, testing out the word. “Where your feet go.”
“My—” He stretched out his legs. “Legs not long.”
“Not enough. Not yet. We’re checking every night, aren’t we?” Jason told him. He lifted Cameron into his arms. “And you know the second you’re ready, Mama will tell me. She likes riding. She wants you to learn.”
“You do?” Cameron asked, peeking at his mother over Jason’s shoulder. “Really?”
“Really. I’m not good enough to leave the paddock just yet, either,” she reminded, following them inside the room, watching as Jason set Cameron in his bed. “But next spring or summer, maybe we’ll all be ready. And we can go riding together.”
Cameron nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He swiped at his eyes. “My feet tell Cinder what to do?”
“Yes, in part,” Jason told him. “It’s important. You don’t want to confuse her, do you?”
“No.” He sniffled again, then heaved a shuddering sigh. “Okay.” He looked at his mother. “Sorry, Mama.”
“It’s okay, love.” She finished the bedtime ritual of tucking him in and switching off the light. Then she and Jason went across the hall to their bedroom. “It’s going to be a longer winter,” she predicted. “He’s not going to add that last six inches for a while.”
“It’s all right,” Jason said easily, drawing her into his arms. “He can ride with me in the spring, and I’ll take you both into the mountains.” He nuzzled at her neck, the soft skin just beneath her ear. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly in his arms. “But we still need to get you through your first Colorado winter.”
“Mmm, well, I’ve been through a winter in upstate New York,” Elizabeth reminded him. “So I’m not scared.”
“Good. And I know what we can do when it gets too cold,” Jason said, the corner of his mouth turning up with that wicked light in his eyes. She grinned, then laughed when he picked her up and tossed her onto the nearby bed.
Summer didn’t give up its hot, sweaty grip on the days until the first weeks of October bloomed, and Elizabeth truly hoped that the heat would began to fade soon. She was desperately looking forward to the bitter chills everyone kept threatening her with. It was irritating to work and live in the shadows of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and be drenched in her own sweat.
She felt like she was swimming through the air as she put Dusty through his last work out of the day, just a normal run to keep him loose and limber. It would break her heart when Jason proclaimed him ready to sell to the next owner. Would he let her help? Maybe she could choose—
“You look flushed,” Johnny told her, his own face florid from the heat. “I’ll finish up with him. You go get some water—”
Elizabeth sighed, and looked towards the corner of the yard where Jason was working with another horse, and Cameron was perched on the fence railing. Jason had hired two more deputies and had cut back to only three days in town these days which was wonderful for all of them. She smiled at the familiar sight, and twisted back to look at Johnny to agree to his suggestion—
But then her vision grayed and her knees dropped out from beneath her. She hit the ground with a grunt and a thud, her head lolling back in the dirt—only the dim vision of Dusty’s black hoofs rearing up and Jason and Johnny’s shouts mixed with Cameron screaming before the world went black.