Ash opened her eyes a fraction and listened in the darkened bunkhouse. Something had woken her but he couldn’t immediately identify what. She remained still and kept her breathing relaxed. She focused on sound. It was more of a seasoned warrior’s response than a modern American girl’s reaction. It was so second nature, Ash hardly recognized that it wasn’t common. There was a slight scrape, barely noticeable to most but Ash wasn’t most. It had come from the area near the mud room. Ash opened her eyes fully, then quietly moved the blanket and sheet off her body. She shifted in the bed to get a better view of the hall. The gentle sounds of the sleeping girls around her became loud to her ears but she listened for the subtle noises that didn’t match those patterns. Again, a soft scrape, a soft thud, then quiet again. Ash swung her legs to the ladder of the bunk and slowly maneuvered down the wood steps. She let her weight settle on the rungs and before each step so the wood didn’t creak. Once she was on the floor she moved to the end of her bunk and dropped low to the floor to try to identify the source of the noise. Another soft thump from the mud room indicated the intruder was inside. Ash moved silently to the hall across from the door of the mud room. Behind her, though the closed door, she could hear the deep breathing of her counselor, Karen. She thought for a single moment to wake the woman then opted to get a visual on the source of the noise before doing so. Ash moved along the shadow of the wall so see could see into the mud room. The room had begun to lighten as the moon crested and shone through the skylights. Just as Ash slid softly into the open doorway, another thud sounded and a flash of movement raced along the floor toward the dryer. Ash jumped back startled and let out a whispered exclamation as Mouser nabbed her prey and swiftly immobilized the offending rodent. Ash’s heart was pounding in her chest as she leaned against the wall. Mouser turned her gleaming green eyes to the girl as the grey mouse in her jaws shuddered its last. Ash laughed silently to herself, saluted the cat and made her way back to her bunk. “Wow, all that and it was just Mouser! Cat nearly scared me to death.” Ash chided herself a bit for being so worked up over the incident. “It’ll take me an hour to settle down and sleep. It’s not like the Huns were invading.” Ash thought about being able to track to the cat so quietly. Neither animal noticed her approach. Ash searched her memories, “No ninjas. At least not yet.” She decided to note the newly discovered skill set in her journal. Since the camp had a strict ‘no electronics’ policy, Ash was relegated to logging anything new by hand. Grandma Ann had given her a large notebook and a package of pens to pack with her clothes. The woman seemed to know that Ash would be doing more writing than the other campers.
Breakfast came early but Ash was used to functioning on limited sleep. The girls bounded out of the bunkhouse and headed to the main lodge. Karen sat with them to eat and talk through the upcoming events of the day. Ash was thrilled to know that her entire morning would be spent in the large barn. Ray would be helping them find a horse companion who would be ‘theirs’ for the rest of camp. Megan had arrived at camp with her own horse. Ash was amazed, “How on earth do you have your own horse? Don’t you live in L.A.?” Megan nodded and swallowed a mouthful f waffle before answering, “Yeah, but my dad works in Palo Alto and there are stables near there. Since I’m homeschooled, I just catch a ride with him 2 days a week. I have to work my butt off the rest of the time to keep up with school but SuzyQ is worth the effort.” Ash smiled, “SuzyQ? That’s a cool name.” Megan shrugged, “Not really but it she was already named, so I didn’t change it. Most of the time I just call her Q anyway.” Ash and Megan talked through the rest of breakfast about horses. Ash liked that Megan was the most experienced riders of the girls in their group. Megan would be focused on Western Dressage and advanced Gymkhana. She and Q were going to be completing together starting with the Fall circuits. Megan told Ash she could come watch one of the sessions. A single ring of the brass bell on stage announced the Camp Master. Derrick Cones strode onto the stage at the far end of the dining hall with an ease born of years of practice. “Good Morning, campers and crew!” The dining hall erupted with a roaring greeting back to the man. Ash appraised the man as he began to talk about safety reminders and signups for various classes. Ash guessed him to be fifty something. Mr. Cones’ hands gestured casually but Ash noticed the hardened skin and muscle that indicated he wasn’t a part-timer on the ranch. His hair was neatly gathered with a leather thong into an ebony stream that shimmered down his back. He wore a crisp brown and tan western shirt tucked into black jeans. A leather belt was accented by a matching holster. Ash cocked her head and looked at the grip and firing hammer of the revolver. Ash instantly recognized the make and model, though she’d never been around fire arms. She made a mental note to write that down in her journal as well. Her mind caught back up with the man’s voice, “All first year campers should head out to the barns right after breakfast. Scouts, there will be a quick meeting about the Animal Husbandry classes that Dr. Lightman will be teaching in the Sunrise cabin. Campers, don’t forget to check in at the infirmary if you need too before your day gets started. It’s easy to forget maintenance routines when you’re excited. Ash noticed that Liz, the youngest girl in their group, cringed at Mr. Cones words. Ash leaned over to her and whispered, “I’ll walk with you if you want.” Liz smiled, “You too?” Ash shook her head, “No, not a routine kinda thing. But I understand not wanting to be singled out.” Liz finished her toast as Mr. Cones started up the camp chant. The campers stamped their feet and clapped their hands through the chorus and the glass in the windows shook as they ended with ‘Bar K, Bar K, Bar K!’
Ash and Liz arrived at the infirmary within minutes of the dismissal. The two talked about their respective homes and schools. They had quite a bit in common. Liz sighed as they stepped inside the infirmary, “I will be so glad when I’m old enough for a pump.” Ash looked at her sideways, “a What?” Liz explained, “I have diabetes, my body doesn’t produced insulin the way it should. In a couple years, I’ll be old enough to have a pump put in my side that will make it to where I don’t have to do injections.” Ash hadn’t heard of that kind of technology before. “How do you monitor the pump?” Liz shrugged, it has an app. The pump is programed to monitor insulin use and stream the meds in as I need it. It has Bluetooth tech and tracks wirelessly to a computer.” Ash was amazed, “That’s some star trek stuff there. Why do you have to wait?” Liz shrugged, “I have stop growing so much.” Ash nodded her understanding. Dr. Lightman greeted the girls, “Hi girls, you can call me Doc. Let me see,” Doc finished through folders on her desk, “Elizabeth and Ashlynn, right?” Liz smiled, “Yeah, just Liz though.” Ash followed her statement, “and I’m just Ash.” Doc smiled at them both. “Got it. Now, Liz, your insulins are in the fridge there. Your monitor and supplies are right up here.” Dr. Lightman open a cabinet that had Liz’s name on a tape across the front. Liz nodded and opened the fridge. There were a few clear bins with names on the tops. Liz found hers and finish out her morning insulin. Dr. Lightman then turned to Ash. “Did you have any trouble last night?” Ash felt the heat flush her face red. “No.” Dr. Lightman nodded once and turned back to Liz. The girl had tested her blood and was deftly drawing the insulin into a needle. Dr. Lightman didn’t offer help, she didn’t want to intrude on Liz’s independence unless it was necessary. Liz turned her back to pair and quickly injected herself in the stomach. Dr. Lightman waited until she had finished. “Liz, do you want to carry a gel pack in case? Camp life can burn through insulin pretty fast and if you have it with you, you don’t have to drop everything and come back here.” Liz nodded, “Good plan, Doc.” She took the gel pack and slid it in with water bottle clipped to her belt. Liz looked at Ash, “Ready? I don’t want all the good horses to be gone!” Ash smiled, “Born ready, Liz. Let’s go!” Both girls waved over their shoulders to Dr. Lightman as they bolted up the hill toward the barn. Dr. Lightman locked the infirmary and headed out to meet with the Scouts for their class.
Liz, Ash and Talia made up the Palomino crew seated along the top rail of the wooden fence next to Palomino’s assigned stable, ‘B’. The main barn and indoor arena connected by wide, sandy walkways to the four smaller stable areas. Each stable had 8 stalls. Megan’s horse, Q, and a dark bay mare named TicTac were already stabled in Barn B. The other stalls were empty but would soon house the camper’s summer horse. Similar scenes played out in the other barns as new campers or returning campers who were choosing a new mount were talking with their counselors. Karen looked up at the excited girls, “Every horse has their own personality. It might take a bit to get to know them. The Mr. Cones and Ray have narrowed the selection of horses they think will best fit for you. Ultimately though, you have to figure it out and choose a horse. Megan has her horse, Q, here and Kerri wanted TicTac again this year.” Karen then talked a bit more about each of the five horses the girls could choose. “The horse that will be coming out for you three are Penny, Topper, Star, Rooter and Mud.” Talia laughed, “Mud? That’s an odd name for a horse!” Karen smiled, “Yep, Mud came to us as rescue and he was already named so he’s stuck with it, but it suits him. You’ll see what I mean.” Ash asked about Mud, “Why was he rescued? What happened?” Karen gave them the short version of Mud’s story. “Animal services in New Mexico got a call about an abused horse. The agents were already on another horse rescue so they had a trailer with them. When they got to the address, they didn’t see any horses at first. One agent decided to slog up a barren, muck covered hill in the pasture and see if she could see the horse. A bit of movement caught her attention and that’s when they found him. He was covered in mud, laying in the field and barely breathing. They called the vet, thinking they’d have to put him down, but before the doc arrived, Mud got up, and staggered across the field over to the horse trailer. He whinnied and the agents opened the gate. Mud loaded himself in and the rest is history. Once he was cleared by a vet and had put on a little weight, he was up for adoption. Mr. Cones stepped up had him taken to the ranch for the rest of his recovery.” Ash could see that Talia was clearly moved by the story. Karen glanced behind her and then hopped up on the fence beside the girls. “Here they come now. Three of the crew led the horses into the paddock area. Ash was thrilled to see the buckskin she had met the day before was among the group. “Karen, what’s the buckskin’s name?” Karen answered, “Well, that there is Rooter. He’s a special case too. This is his very first time being allowed to be a camper’s horse. He might need a strong hand and more patience.” Ash leaned forward and watched Rooter stamp and paw impatiently as the crew tied the horses along the fence. Ray arrived and took the boisterous Rooter from the other crew member. He walked the horse in a circle talking quietly to calm the animal. “Settle down, now. You want to make a good impression don’t you. Don’t scare these girls with your antics.” Rooter neighed loudly startling Liz. The younger girl shook her head, “Nope, he reminds me of my little brother, bouncing all over the place and loud as heck!” Ash giggled happily. “Yeah he’s pretty noisy.” Talia couldn’t take her eyes off Mud. Karen instructed the girls how to greet the animals, and demonstrated a grooming routine. Each girl was to then select a horse to greet, groom and decide if they wanted to work with for the summer. Over the years, Karen learned to tell in the first few minutes if the necessary bond was forming between steed and rider. If things weren’t working out, she’d gently suggest the camper move to another animal. Liz raised her hand, “Karen, I don’t know which horse to start with, I’ve never been around horses before.” Karen nodded and motioned Liz to hop down off the fence, “Why don’t you let me introduce you to Penny? She’s a super sweet gal and is gentle as the day is long.” Karen glanced over her shoulder to see Talia making a beeline for Mud. The counselor then looked questioningly at Ash. Ash motioned for her to go ahead with Liz. “I think I know who I’d like to meet.” Ray had Rooter over on the other side of the paddock, well away from the other horses. Ash jumped down from the rail and slowly made her way toward them. Ray watched her approach but said nothing. Ash moved slowly but confidently, “Hey Rooter. There’s an easy boy. Mind if I come over and talk to you?” Rooter lifted his head and perked his ears toward the girl. He stamped and snorted but didn’t move. Ash stopped just in front of him and waited for him to crane his head toward her and snuffle her. Once he did and straightened, he nickered softly and stood still. Ash approached and stroked his neck. Ray handed her the lead rope but didn’t leave her side. “He seems to have taken a shine to you, Ash. Do you think you will be comfortable with a green horse? He’s apt to make mistakes.” Ash kept stroking the horse’s neck and mane. “Yeah, I mean, he young and jumpy but not mean. I think he and I are on the same page. What do you think, Ray?” Ray was impressed that she earnestly asked his opinion. “I think he likes you. He hasn’t been too keen on letting campers touch him so I think it’s worth a shot if you’re game.” Ash met Rooters gaze. She felt a strong connection to this horse. “Yep, I’m game.” Rooter neighed loudly, almost in hearty agreement. Ash laughed and she led the animal to the tie post so she could begin grooming him. Ray patted her on the shoulder, walked with her and showed her the way to secure the lead then left the two to get better acquainted.
That evening, after dinner and showers, Ash took the opportunity to write in her journal.
“I’ve discovered I know the constellations and about the use of the stars in land navigation. When the camp crew tells stories of the “old days” I know some of the characters they mention, including Mandan and Crow hunters and what happened to the Loco Mountain tribes. They died of dysentery one terrible winter. It wasn’t a glamourous as the campfire tales, but I know it’s the truth. I selected my horse partner today. He’s a beautiful buckskin gelding named Rooter. He green, this will be his first summer with a camper. He reminds me of a horse named Copper. I don’t know why or when I had Copper but it will probably come to me soon. I’m more comfortable in the barn than I can ever admit to anyone. Being here has made me feel so happy! Sitting here on my bunk, I can see the stars and I love it so much more than the city. Chalk up another ‘weird’. I know this feeling must be from another life. I wish I had Andrew’s notes so I could try to piece together the fragments. As it is, I will have to ‘wait for clarity and try to be patient’. Those words have become my rap. At least I know I won’t make an ass of myself with the horses. I know in my gut what to do and how to do it when it comes to all that. Poor Liz, she’s really intimidated. Her horse, Penny is a sweet old mare. I think Karen meant those two to be together. Talia picked Mud, I think that was on purpose too. After we groomed the horses, Ray explained how to bridle and saddle them. I’m glad they had the step stools, I can barely lift the saddle up onto Rooter, he really tall. He stood there, stamping and snorting like a grumpy old bull. I had a gut feeling Rooter would be edgy with the bridle so I saddled him first. Ray just watched, once I had Rooter tacked up, Ray came over and asked how I knew to saddle first if the animal was skittish. I told him I watched a lot of YouTube. Honestly, I just knew. Andrew mentioned in his journal about having horses. I have a lot of understanding about horses and outdoors stuff. I don’t think Andrew was the first to be around these wonderful animals. I feel like this thing with horses runs deeper than just his memories. After we saddled, we took turns lunging the horses in the ring while Ray and Karen gave us tips on control and such. We didn’t get to ride though. I was disappointed about that but I have to walk the path and not draw so much attention. I just wanted to fling myself into the saddle and head for the mountain trails. It is o hard to patient!
Oh! I nearly forget to jot this down. I know handguns, makes, models, cleaning and shooting. I am going to sign up for firearms training as a secondary activity but I already know I’m going to be really skilled. I wish all the memories of one whole life would come. Everything feels like a patchwork quilt that hasn’t been sewn together. I’m still dealing with fragments and scraps of understanding that don’t fit into one story! It’s like watching TV with grandma as she flips channels, nothing is ever whole or complete.”
Ash heard Kerri and Megan come out of the showers. The two girls checked in with the rest of the bunkhouse. Ash tucked her notebook and pen away as Kerri popped her head up. “Hey there, I heard you got Rooter! He’s an awesome horse. I think you’ll have a blast with him.” Ash nodded happily, “Yeah, I was super stoked to see him come out. Hey, do you think he might be good at the Gymkhana events?” Kerri thought for a minute, “I don’t know. He’s pretty green. Maybe some of the cutting and penning stuff may be more his game. He’s got a lot of energy and not a lot of control yet. You’ll have to work him and see how it goes. I bet he’s a cattle horse at heart.” Ash was a bit disappointed, she didn’t know much about penning but she knew about cattle and the old trail drives. “You may be right, but maybe you can help me teach him? I’d love to win a ribbon in the camp events.” Kerri nodded, “OK, but don’t forget, winning the cutting or penning gets a really nice buckle! I wish they’d give buckles for my events, I love the bling!” Ash laughed as Kerri moved to chat with the other girls. It had been a glorious first day. Ash wanted to get to sleep fast so tomorrow would come sooner. Soon, the group settled in for the night and they listened as 4 bells rang across the camp signaling lights out. Ash was asleep before the last chime softly faded in the cool Montana night.
…Ash recognized the nightmare as soon as it began.