Fall’s brilliant colors had faded; threadbare Halloween was standing tall, waving gnarled fingers from every tree in Excelsior. Betsy Devonshire loved autumn, but business had kept her from a leaf excursion this year. She couldn’t even enjoy its brilliant colors in her shop much longer. The needlework patterns of bright-colored leaves, jack-o’-lanterns and witches would make way for the Christmas displays the day after Halloween.
Such was the way of the commerce world. The fall stuff had been picked back around the Fourth of July, the Christmas offerings had been planned before school started. One of the sad parts of owning a retail business was that the owner was always thinking a season or two ahead.
Right now, Betsy was browsing through a catalog from Lantern Moon, which made beautiful baskets. Betsy liked to use their baskets to display needlework products in her shop, and she also carried their baskets for sale, especially the sea-reed rice baskets with their fold-in tops, very handy for carrying projects. Baskets made great Christmas gifts. But Lantern Moon was now also carrying knitting needles made of ebony, rosewood, and coconut palm, and needle cases made of silk, and Betsy was happy to add these items to her order. They would look nice next to a basket full of wool and silk yarns in winter colors of deep green, wine, and gold.
She was totting up the cost with a little sigh when her door sounded its two notes. She looked up to see her good friend and steady customer Jill Cross Larson. Holding on to Jill’s hand was Jill’s daughter Emma, just going on two. Mother and daughter were equally fair, but Jill’s hair was straight and pulled severely back from her face into a fat braid; her toddler’s hair was fine and curly. Emma was walking sideways, reaching for a hat that Jill held in her other hand. “Mine, mine!” Emma was saying.
“Yes, baby, this is your hat,” said Jill, handing it over. To Betsy, she added, “She was experimenting to see if she could throw it between parked cars into the street.”
“Throw hat!” agreed Emma, suiting action to her words. The hat, a warm knit helmet in bright blue, flew up and forward a couple of yards, landing on a low table covered with framed models of solemn pilgrims and comic turkeys. Emma giggled and tried to pull free of her mother’s grasp.
“Hold on, Mighty Mite,” said Jill, not letting go. She walked her over to the table and picked the hat off a frame. Holding it out of her daughter’s reach, she said, “If I give this to you, do not throw it. Do you understand? Hold it, or wear it, but do not throw it.”
“‘Kay,” agreed Emma. Of course, on being handed the hat, she immediately threw it. This time it hooked onto a spinner rack of overdyed floss.
Jill looked around at Betsy. “Sorry,” she said.
Betsy was laughing too hard to reply. Jill was a solemn sort of person. To see her coping with a daughter who had a wild sense of humor was amusing.
Jill again retrieved the hat and this time stuffed it in a pocket, placidly ignoring the outraged toddler’s demands for it back.
“What can I do for you?” asked Betsy, using more effort to ignore Emma’s screams.
“Two things: First, I want to sign up for that knitting class that Rosemary is teaching.”
That took a few minutes, while a check was written and a name entered.
Then, “Second, I want to invite you to go horseback riding with me.”
Betsy smiled, in case this was the beginning of one of Jill’s subtle jokes. “Ride a horse where?”
“Oh, out in the fields on my friend’s farm. She has five horses. They’re not being ridden as often as they should be, so she says I can come and ride any time I want, and I can bring a friend, too.” Seeing that Betsy still did not understand, she continued, “You know how every so often we talk about going on a cattle roundup?”
It had long been Betsy’s dream – her maternal great-grandfather had been among the last of the real cowboys – to go on a cattle drive. It was a dream Jill shared, though they had not managed to fulfill it even after years of talking about it.
Cattle rides, or roundups, still happened in the twenty-first century, but mostly as tourist attractions. There was a ranch in eastern South Dakota that had one, Betsy knew. But the tourists didn’t just stand by the fences, applauding as the cattle streamed by; they got to join in, ride the horses, herd strays back into line, eat beans and wood-grilled steak around a campfire, and sleep on the ground. And they paid good money for such privileges.
“Yes, I remember. Are you saying she’s going to have a cattle drive?”
“No, no. I mean, she does have cattle, a few of the Scottish Highland breed, very exotic — and delicious. But this isn’t a roundup or drive, just a chance to reacquaint our bottoms with a saddle.”
“Hmmmm,” said Betsy, for it had been a long time since she sat on a horse. “When do you want to go?”
Jill went to the spinner rack of overdyed floss and turned it casually with one finger. “Lars has tomorrow off.”
“Oh, Jill, not this week! I’ve got that EGA convention coming up!” Betsy, an officer of the local Embroiderers Guild of America, was helping to organize the national gathering of needlepointers. But she was also the sole vendor of needlework materials and was going to have to move almost the entire stock of her shop to the downtown Minneapolis hotel for a three-day weekend. That took considerable organization, and all of it in addition to the usual lengthy day of a small-shop owner: sales, restocking, bookkeeping, cleaning, mending, filling special orders, and keeping teachers and students in her many classes organized and happy. Not to mention the usual tasks of an unmarried person in today’s America: laundry, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, even the occasional full night’s sleep.
“Can’t Goddy –- ” began Jill. Godwin DuLac was Betsy’s store manager and essential right arm in the business.
“I am not going to let Goddy do my laundry!”
Jill laughed. “Laundry?” she said. “I meant he can find someone to work an extra afternoon, can’t he?”
Emma imitated her mother’s laugh, and Jill scooped her up, then began walking very slowly toward the checkout desk. “Think about it,” she said. “The sun on top of a horse’s mane, rippling as he walks. The pungent equine scent, the rocking saddle, the breeze in your hair. The bawl of a distant calf, and a crow’s fading call. The smell of drying grass and fallen leaves. The unwinding of stress.” By now she was leaning in to Betsy’s face, her voice low and thrilling.
Betsy’s eyes closed. She was there, in the sunlight, with the crows and the creaking saddle. “Oh, gosh,” she murmured.
“Business has been good lately, hasn’t it?”
“So you can send your laundry out for once. And you can afford that part-timer for one extra afternoon, too –- not even the whole afternoon, just three hours. Lindsay’s place is half an hour from here, so an hour there and back, and two hours to mess around with horses. Fat, quiet horses, nothing exciting, you won’t even be sore the next day. She’ll have them saddled and waiting.”
Betsy meant to argue some more, but when she opened her mouth, all that came out was, “Let’s do it.”
* * * *
The horses were indeed fat and lazy, perfect for two women who needed to relearn old riding skills. The day was bright and barely cool -– global warming had come to Minnesota, and sometimes it didn’t snow until mid-November.
Jill’s friend Lindsay led the way out into a pasture where green grass was growing up through hay stubble. Insects buzzed halfheartedly, resurrected by the warmth. The sky was a cloudless blue, a deeper shade than in summer, and the air had a rough edge to it, carrying scents of ripe apples and dying leaves. The horses’ feet crushed the dry stems of cut hay with a sound like bursts of elfin applause. As Jill had predicted, the distant lowing of a cow and cawing of a crow could be heard, while overhead a skein of Canada geese flew in an uneven formation.
Betsy, after ten minutes of discomfort, finally remembered how to relax her spine and settle into the saddle. She was riding a mare named Brown Eyes. Lindsay, leading the way, rode a beautiful light gray gelding named Fancy Pants, who had a dark muzzle and legs and a mostly white mane and tail. Fancy Pants snorted and danced his way across the field and Betsy was grateful not to be riding him. Jill brought up the rear on another gelding, a tall, quiet palomino named Goldie.
At the other side of the pasture, Lindsay showed off Fancy Pants’s training by making him sidle back and forth while she opened and closed a gate without dismounting. The gate led to a dirt lane into a small wood. Fallen leaves crunched in a deeper note as they ambled among some big old trees. A jay flitted from tree to tree ahead of them, screaming, “Thief! Thief! Thief!” which alarmed an antlered buck into crashing off, his tail a white flag.
“Darn that old jay,” grumbled Lindsay. “Usually when you’re on horseback, the deer can’t pick up the human smell and you can ride right up on them.”
The trees ended abruptly at a steep bank, leading down to a stream. They started up alongside it. Betsy said over her shoulder to Jill, “I’m starting to feel competent, how about you?”
“Sure. What do you have in mind, a race?”
“No, but I’d like to see if we can get down to the water without falling off.”
Lindsay, who was Jill’s age, with light brown hair and eyes, said, “Yes, a race! Race you to the bottom!” and turned her horse, clapped heels to his flanks, and gave him his head. The horse took the slope, which was gravelly and thinly strewn with clumps of low-growing grass, in a series of dust-raising plunges, which she rode with ease.
Betsy, grinning, turned her horse to follow. But Brown Eyes snorted at such foolishness. She refused to go headlong, instead turning sideways to ease her way down.
Jill’s tall palomino took one leap headfirst, almost throwing Jill over his shoulder. Then he turned sideways and imitated Betsy’s mount, stepping carefully downward. Jill grinned at Betsy, relieved.
At the bottom, Lindsay was letting her horse drink from the stream while she looked up and laughed. “Cowards!” she shouted, making him snort and splash.
“Hey, this is my horse’s idea, not mine!” replied Betsy, perfectly happy with her caution.
At the bottom, they all let their horses drink from the stream. Fancy Pants pawed impatiently at the water, and Lindsay said, “Shall we see if they can climb up the other side? It’s still my land over there.” At the top on the other side was open pasture.
“Sure,” said Jill, and she urged her horse up and out of the water.
The opposite bank was, if anything, steeper than the first, but with a kind of small plateau halfway up. Jill grabbed the saddle horn and hung on while her horse, sinking fetlock-deep into the gravelly earth, lunged upward. Betsy hollered, “Wait for me!” and kicked her horse to make it hurry.
But halfway up, Brown Eyes began to slide. Betsy started to get off, but had only one leg free when the horse collapsed, legs flailing. Betsy, with her other foot caught in the stirrup, felt a sickening pain as the horse twisted and rolled, trying to regain its feet. Then her foot came loose and the horse slid away, still struggling, down to the stream at the bottom.
Betsy tried to get her own legs under her, and screamed as the pain in her right ankle overwhelmed her. It was like a huge monster that darkened the sunlit sky over her head.
“Oh, my God, oh, my God!” yelled Lindsay, who had dismounted at the bottom. She began climbing up toward Betsy on all fours. “Don’t move, don’t move!”
“O-okay,” Betsy stammered. She was lying on her back, and she dug her left heel into the soft ground to stay in place. Her voice was thin and shaky.
Suddenly there was a tumble of stones from above, then Jill was beside her. Betsy put a hand out, afraid Jill would try to lift her. But Jill said, “Lay still.”
“I’m trying to.” Betsy could hear Lindsay talking on a cell phone, calling for an ambulance. “Is the horse all right?” Betsy asked.
Jill smiled at her. “Yes, she’s stepping on her reins down in the water, trying to decide how much trouble she’s in.”
“Our fault, not hers. Oh, God, my leg hurts so bad!”
“I know. No, don’t look, it’s twisted in a funny way. But there’s no blood. You’re going to be fine.” She looked down the slope and called, “Lindsay, can you bring me your jacket?” Jill, very typically, had worn only a light flannel shirt for the ride. Betsy had a denim jacket on, but she was going into shock and had started to shiver.
“Anything else hurt?” asked Jill, looking her over.
“No, I don’t think so. But I think my ankle’s broken.”
“Yes, I think it is, too.”
“Oh, Jill, what am I going to do about the convention?”
Jill smiled. “I don’t think that’s the big problem right now. The big problem is going to be getting you out of here. Should be interesting to see how they do it.”
It was. And painful, too.