Ella patted the soil down over her carrot seeds with satisfaction. She always received a sense of joy when she planted vegetables and fruits with her own two hands.
"I think we're done, Anya," she said, tucking a crimped wheat tendril behind her ear. The cat responded with an alert mew, watching as she brushed her filthy hands against her jeans.
An ebony truck pulled into the driveway and rolled to a stop. Another young teenager leapt our from the passenger seat, auburn wisps in turmoil around her face.
Adah grinned as Ella raced across the grass and catapulted into her with a sunny grin. Adah released her almost immediately and grabbed her by the shoulders.
"You leased a horse?"
"We're leasing a horse!" Ella squealed shrilly. "Come inside, and I'll show you a picture before we go pick her up."
She led the way through the redwood house until they reached her room at the opposite side. Buttermilk walls were covered with pink roses. The lower half was lined with oak book shelves, upon which rested many gold and silver trophies. All were engraved with titles- Miss Rodeo, or Little Miss Beauty, for instance.
"Here she is," Ella snatched a photo from her mattress. "She's a Quarter Horse."
Adah smiled at the graceful palomino mare, her flaxen mane drifting in the breeze. Her legs were slender, yet strong.
"So, tell me about her!"
"Well," Ella ran a hand through her hair, hazel eyes sparkling. "She's nine, and a little over fifteen hands high."
"She's so beautiful. When do we go?"
Ella checked her watch and smiled. "Right now."
They arrived at Hawthorne Hills Ranch within twenty minutes. The sky was clear except for the occasional cloud streak and the aroma of honeysuckle rippled through the dry grass. A natural wooden shingled house was planted in the middle of the crisp field.
"It's so desolate here," Ella remarked as she strode toward the house. A border collie yelped from the wooden porch, leaping straight into the air with excitement.
"Leif, stop barking," a middle-aged woman came through the screen door and let it bang shut behind her. She trotted down the steps with a broad smile on her face.
"Hello, Mrs. Mason," Ella smiled and extended her hand. The rather rotundas woman accepted her hand with a firm shake.
"Nice to see you again, Ella. Who is your friend, here?"
"This is Adah. She loves horses too."
"Good to meet you, Adah. Come along and we'll take Chamomile out."
The grass rustled around their legs, swirling even after they passed through. Adah swung her arm around Ella's shoulders, giving her an anticipated squeeze.
"Now you can go riding with me and James," Adah ranted, arm swinging beside her.
"And we can go on trails…"
"Maybe chase cattle…"
"Or-" Ella stopped dead in her tracks, eyes suddenly even larger than usual. The mare was in a round pen made of twine, head lowered as she grazed. White lashes caught the dust before it could land in her big eyes.
"What do you think?" Mrs. Mason grinned.
"She's beautiful," Ella breathed.
"We appreciate you leasing her while we fence this place up again," the woman continued. "Would you like to try her out?"
"Yeah, she would!" Adah exclaimed as Ella nodded eagerly. They trudged after Mrs. Mason, admiring the mare until they nearly tangled themselves in the twine fence.
"We left the saddle at the house, so I'll give you a boost up there."
"All right," Ella said as she crawled through the makeshift fence, eyes shining. "Thanks so much!"
"Not a problem," Mrs. Mason took a red rope halter from around the tee post and began fastening it around Chamomile, who willingly pushed her muzzle through the loop.
Then Mrs. Mason tied the end of her lead rope to the opposite side of the halter, making a loop to use in place of reins.
"Can I hold onto her while Ella gets on?" Adah asked.
"Sure can. Someone needs to while I give her a boost."
She crouched down and opened her hands for Ella to step into. Once she obeyed, Mrs. Mason straightened and allowed her to swing her leg over the mare's back.
"Wow," Ella gasped and released a grin. "Everything's so beautiful from up here."
"Keep your heels down," Adah ordered. "You'll go flying if she spooks and they're up."
Ella shoved her heels down and took up the makeshift reins, sucking a deep breath. "What should I do first?"
"Whatever you want, honey," Mrs. Mason smiled warmly. "Just be sure and watch for rattlesnakes. They have a tendency to slither around these parts."
The teenager nodded and nudged Chamomile forward. The mare took lengthy strides, though they were smoother than most long steps are. Ella was pleasantly surprised when her body swayed along with her movements as though the two were one.
"She feels so nice," she smiled.
"Yes, she has a lovely gait," Mrs. Mason agreed. "Why don't you circle her around?"
Ella drew her left arm aside, guiding Chamomile in a wide circle through the golden grass. A smile lit her face and refused to fade, much like the sun bearing down from overhead. All the scattered lessons and spontaneous rides she'd enjoyed over the years would be put to use now.
"You're both so graceful," Adah called.
"Thanks," a grin spread across her friend's face. "Everything feels so free from up here."
A breeze whispered through dry grass, sending wisps of hair across her face. She ran a hand though it just as Chamomile tensed beneath her. The mare tossed her pale mane, snorting softly.
"Hey, what is it?" Ella gasped, automatically jerking the reins. She was growing steadily more aware of a sound within the grass. It sounded a little like when the wind blew through, only more persistent.
Chamomile tossed her head again, only this time, her shoulders rose slightly as well. She touched back down, then rose again. Ella shrieked as she slid right off from Chamomile's back and landed on her own.
Adah snapped her from her stunned daze. She blinked the sunlight from her eyes, the scene replaying in her mind to clarify what happened. Then, though still rather blank, she pushed herself into a sitting position.
"Are you all right?" Mrs. Mason called as she hurried to her side. "What happened?"
Ella stared, planting her trembling hands on the ground to push herself up. With a soft moan, she rubbed her eyes and blinked wearily again. "I think I heard a rustling before she spooked."
Mrs. Mason sighed. "It must've been another rattler. I keep trying to shoot them and make a nice dinner, but the little buggers are always gone before I return. I'm sorry, are you all right?"
"Mm-hm," Ella gave a slow nod. Her muscles grew sturdier with every second, reassuring her slightly. She gazed around the field to find Adah standing with one hand shielding her eyes from the sun and the other gripping Chamomile's halter.
"Are you okay?" she shouted.
"Yeah," Ella nodded. "I'm fine."
"I suppose you might want to reconsider your lease," Mrs. Mason sighed despondently, but Ella only shook her head.
"No, I want to get better at riding."
"You still want to bring her home?"
"Right on, Ella," Adah called proudly, pumping a fist into the air. Chamomile stood placidly as ever beside her.
"Come on, Chamomile," Ella called. "Is this really how we're going to begin our relationship?"
The mare pricked her ears attentively and sighed. She was such a beautiful mare, especially with her soft brown eyes. Ella smiled with anticipation at the thought of going riding with her friends.
"No one tell Mom what just happened," she joked.