Freeze Brands and Hope

Alexandria Becker

 

John St. Michael Woodridge shoved his beat-up hat down on his head as he grabbed the truck keys and went out the door, leaving a half-folded letter on his desk. Shaking his head he walked out to the truck, remembering the gist of it. A friend of his mother’s was sending her daughter out to stay on his ranch for two months. He wanted to say no. His mother had known he would refuse, so instead of trying to convince him for whatever reason she had sent the letter so it got to him the day before the girl was supposed to arrive at the airport two hours away. He’d spent the last day trying to find someone in town who would loan him a truck. He couldn’t just leave a girl at the airport with no place to go.

Turning the key, the old diesel engine thundered to life. John eased the clutch out and drove the truck out of his long drive and onto the highway.

Just about two hours later John pulled into the airport parking lot and stopped the truck. It was quiet around the little airport. Very few people ever decided to fly out this direction to this area of the Flinthills. Wichita was a long way away and the towns were small. Sighing, he looked around the parking lot, thinking how foolish it was that he’d come out all the way to pick up a girl that he didn’t even want to deal with. The letter hadn’t been comforting about the idea of actually having her around for two months. It sounded like the girl was a nutcase, like her parents didn’t want to deal with her and they couldn’t pawn her off closer to home. He had tried to make it very clear he wouldn’t be a summer camp for children who had issues when he had moved out to the ranch.

The doors opened to the building and a young woman walked out. John stopped looking around the parking lot and watched her. She was relatively tall, a clean white turtle neck shirt and tight blue jeans complemented her body nicely. Long blond hair cascaded down her back. Over her shoulder was a swollen red duffel bag with a black shoulder strap. Glancing to the left and right, she stepped off the cement and made her way across the parking lot.

John looked away as she neared the truck and jumped when she rapped on his window. She watched patiently as he rolled down the window. “Are you Mr. Woodridge?”

“Uh, yeah,” John said quietly, feeling blood burning on his face. No one ever called him Mr. Woodridge.

“Well good.” She smiled, “I’m Samantha, Sam, a man in there said he thought you were who I was looking for.” When he didn’t answer she stopped, “You got word that I was coming, right?”

John shook his head quickly to clear his thoughts. It didn’t seem right to take his frustration out on her. “Yeah, sorry, um…, go ahead and get in. It’ll be two hours before we get to the ranch.”

Nodding, Sam went around to the passenger’s side and climbed into the truck, throwing her bag on the floorboard. Turning to John she shrugged, “So Mr. Woodridge, um, could I call you by something else?”

Trying to get the engine to turn over he shrugged, “Some people call me John.”

“OK.” Her face smoothed out as she leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes slightly. John looked over at her and knew that she was still watching him under her eyelashes. She seemed calm enough, he wished he was also. He turned the truck on and bumped out of the parking lot and onto the highway. They rode the rest of the way to the ranch in silence.

John turned the truck into the drive, slowing down as he passed over the cattle grate. Sam leaned forward slightly and looked around the property. “So this is where you live?”

“Yeah, I’ve called it home for the last, oh, five years.” Stopping, he parked beside his house, in front of the old porch.

“How old are you?”

“Why?” He didn’t bother to look up from yanking the parking brake into position. He’d noticed that it didn’t work real well when he’d picked up the truck, but he couldn’t complain about a truck he was being allowed to borrow.

“You said you’ve been here about five years. You don’t look all that old; you left just recently if I remember right.”

“I’m 24.” Turning off the engine, John stepped out and looked back up at Sam, “Get your stuff and follow if you wish.” Without waiting for her to reply, he turned and started walking across the porch.

Sam jumped out of the truck after him; her duffel bag on her shoulder. “Wait, that means you came out here when you were 19.”

“That’s the way I remember it.” He stepped onto the porch, hearing the hollow sound of the wood under his boots.

“Why?” Jogging to keep up, she followed him onto the porch and to the door of his house.

“I got tired of being around people all the time. The horses like it out here too.” Pulling a key out of his pocket, he unlocked the door and turned toward Sam, motioning with his hand he stood back from the door, “Ladies first.”

“Thanks,” sidestepping through the door to accommodate her bag, she walked in quickly and looked around. “So, you live here alone?”

Following, John dropped the keys on a small table and hung his hat on a hook by the door. “So far.”
“Does anyone ever come out to visit?” She walked past the entryway where he couldn’t see her anymore.

“Not really.” He followed her into the hallway and stopped. Brushing a long strand of hair out of his face, he moved in front of her and ushered her into the main room of the house.

“Why not?” Her voice was heavy with questions, most not asked, just implied.

“It’s the way I want it. No one to harass me or the horses.”

“So,” she paused and looked around, “do you have like a phone, or computer, stuff like that?”

“I don’t have a phone but my computer has internet access for my business.” Walking farther into the room he turned on the lights and motioned for Sam to follow. “How many more questions do you have?”

“The truth: probably a couple thousand, what I’ll ask right now: a couple more.”

He stopped, turned around and faced her, preparing for her questions. He frowned slightly. “Fine. Then it’s my turn.”

Sam paused at his tone of voice and took half a step back. She seemed to suck into herself just a little bit and he could tell he’d made her a little uncomfortable. “Why do you train horses?”

John shrugged. “I like it,” he paused and laughed, “and I’m told I’m good at it.”

“What do you do with them?” She looked away from him, looking over the sparse furniture. Most of the chairs had bridles draped across them, ropes lay at the end of the table and there was a beat-up saddle propped up in the corner.

“I gentle them, train them up, then eventually I sell them, and pray to God that they get to go to a good home.” Smirked and raised an eyebrow as he looked down at her. “Now my turn.”

Sam shrugged, shifting her bag. She half smiled, like she wasn’t able to make her face contort right, looking back at him. “Go ahead.”

“Why did your parents send you out here? They don’t even know me.” He crossed his arms and frowned as she paused.

“I’ve had some trouble with the law, drinking, a little shoplifting. Well, I was charged with shoplifting, I didn’t actually do that.” Looking away, she shrugged. “I guess they just don’t trust me, probably didn’t ever want me anyhow.” Something sounded off but he wasn’t thinking about that.

“Um, okay, let me clear this up just real quick. There will be no drinking on this place, no drugs, smoking, et cetra. Just to make that clear. I don’t want any of that around my horses.”

Throwing her hands up she almost laughed, then stopped. Something seemed to fracture in her smile. “I promise, I won’t touch any drugs, what-so-ever.” She laughed softly; it was almost a sour sound, like she was laughing at some sadistic personal joke. She shrugged, “Shoot, I haven’t been drunk except for two, three times. I was just unlucky enough that I got caught at a bad time.”

“Good, I guess,” John relaxed slightly, watching her warily,“how old are you?”

“18.”

“Huh, I’d think you’d be on your own by now since your parents and you don’t seem to get along.” He turned and started to walk into a dark hallway. She looked older than 18, in startlingly good way. Shaking his head slightly, he reminded himself she would be leaving in two months and he was just basically babysitting her.

She whispered as he walked away, “I can’t get away.”

Stopping John looked back at Sam “What?”

“Never mind.” She shrugged slightly and looked away.

“I’ll get your room ready in a little while. For now make yourself comfortable out here.” He motioned around the open room.

“Thanks, I promise I won’t be trouble.” Dropping her duffel bag, she sat down in a rocking chair under a window. John watched her for a couple seconds and slowly turned and walked to his bedroom.

Sitting on the edge of his bed he bowed his head and ran his hands through his hair. He stopped and looked at a strand that caught around his finger, the light catching the coppery highlights in the deep brown. He almost wished Sam was a little girl like he thought she would be, like 12 or 13, not a young woman. Why on earth had his mother suggested for him to take her for two months? She hadn’t bothered to explain what was going on. He had to stay detached, he didn’t know much about her, and he didn’t want to get hurt. Images ran through his head, the light catching on her gold hair, the way she walked, her slightly off smile. Shaking his head, he looked up into a small mirror by the bed. His dark green eyes looked back at him calmly, at least he seemed to be doing a good job at making his face a mask. He looked around the room looking at the plain furniture and blank walls. He needed to clean out the extra room so Sam could stay in it. So a lot of his equipment would be finding places in this room, filling in whatever corners weren’t already taken by saddles, ropes, bits, boots, and pieces of random junk.

Heaving himself up, he walked out of the room, limping slightly as he walked into the extra room and looked around at the accumulated junk. At least, he thought, he’d be able to keep his mind busy. Hopefully.

After he had finished getting the last pieces of his gear out of the spare room, John walked out into the main room where he had left Sam. He waited quietly until she looked up and shut the paperback book she was reading.

“I’ve got your room ready, if you’d like to follow me?” He turned slightly as she got up and picked up her duffel bag, trying not to watch her too closely.

Sam got up beside him, looking up she shrugged, “Lead on McDuff.”

John looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

“It means you’re the one who knows where we’re going, so you can lead us there.” She explained; there was a soft tone in her voice as she explained, almost a laugh.

Shrugging, he moved on down the hall, feeling Sam walking right behind him. Suddenly aware of his limp, he tried to straighten up and smooth his gait a little. Stopping just beyond the door, he spun on his heel quickly, trying to keep her from running over him. He turned just in time to catch her as she stumbled into him, her duffel bag falling to the floor.

“Easy there. Sorry. I stopped too fast.” He gently righted her before she flinched away, then picked up her bag.

“That’s alright.” she mumbled, her head down with her hair falling around her face.

“Um, this is your room.” He stopped, an awkward silence filled the hallway as she walked into the room and sat down on a small chair in the corner. John followed her at a short distance and placed her bag on the bed. Wiping his palms on his jeans he looked around the room, letting his gaze finally settle on her.

She was shaking, and her hair was still covering her face. “Sam?” he took a few steps toward her, “Sam?” Carefully he knelt in front of her. “What’s wrong? What did I do?” She didn’t respond. Slowly, like working with a flighty horse, he brushed back her hair so he could see her face. Tears were coursing down her face, and she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. Suddenly the long-forgotten conversations and arguments he had overheard from his parents came back to him. He had never believed they could actually be true. Not someone who he had actually met. Could they? Mentally he shook off all his own problems, they seemed insignificant now. Pulling her into his chest, with her face buried in his shoulder, shaking back and forth, he slowly rubbed circles on her back. She relaxed, her body no longer stiff against his arms. He felt her frame shake with sobs as her tears soaked through his shirt. Reality wasn’t kind, he kept being hit by it every time he looked at the world around himself. Cruelties that he never would have imagined himself kept showing themselves.

He kept rubbing her back in a slow, rhythmic pattern. “Easy,”he murmured. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Quietly he talked into her golden hair, keeping his movements slow and steady. Trying to calm her.

She had stopped crying finally, falling to sleep in his arms as the sky darkened in the window. Carefully John placed her on the bed and left the room, turning off the light and shutting the door. The old memories kept flooding his mind. The voice of his mother saying she wanted to help a friend of hers, his father shouting back that he was taking in a girl who was “messed” up. They went around and around, oblivious that John was awake in his room on the other side of the wall. His mother would yell something about being Christian and abuse and someone’s father and husband, his father would yell about finances and such. After a few weeks John had started to leave his room and stand in his parents’ doorway quietly until one or the other of them realized he was still awake and heard everything they would be arguing about. His father would turn red and storm past him, to the barn usually, and his mother would tell him to go to sleep as she started nervously cleaning the already clean room.

Now he was starting to understand it all, little things were coming together. Turning on his computer in the main room, he quickly pulled up his email and found his mother’s email address. Typing quickly he watched the screen fill with questions. The first line: Mom: The girl that you told me was coming, Samantha, is here. She’s the girl that you and Father were always fighting about years ago isn’t she?

Hopefully she would tell him what was going on when she sent an email back. Sending his computer to sleep he picked up the keys and went out to feed the horses. It was dark outside and they were nickering at him as he walked out the door.

* * *

The next morning John woke up to find the sun already pouring through the windows. He’d been up most of the night, tossing and turning, thinking about Samantha and his parents. Quickly he got up and pulled on some blue jeans and tugged on a shirt. Running a comb through his hair he quickly glanced at the mirror; he needed to shave but the horses came first. He was better than an hour late on feeding already. Tying his boots, he stood up and limped quickly to the front room, he picked up the feed room keys and as he started to walk away from his desk. Then he stopped, hopefully his mother had sent a reply to his email.

Sitting down, he opened his email and clicked on the unread mail. His mother’s reply loaded on the screen. There were a whole two lines: “I’m glad Samantha got there safely. Yes, you’re right, she was the one your father and I tended to fight about. I’m sorry but I can’t tell you what’s going on, you’re going to have to talk to her, it’s not my place.”

Frowning, John shut the computer off and went outside to feed. As he stepped out and shut the house door he had to stop and let his eyes adjust to the morning sun. The horses weren’t nickering this morning. Walking toward the barn, he noticed the horses were running around the small pasture. Looking closer he noticed a silhouette sitting on the top rail of the four foot fence. A horse was standing right there too. Neither seemed to notice as he changed his direction and walked up to them. The horse moved its head as he got within twenty feet and John stopped. The horse that was standing with Sam was the young stallion he’d picked up a few days earlier. He hadn’t been able to come within thirty feet without the horse running away or trying to attack him, and now the ornery stallion was standing with his nose practically in Sam’s pocket. He started to walk toward them again, this time more carefully, edging toward Sam’s right side, opposite the stallion.

Coming up to the fence, he leaned against the rail and looked up at Sam. “Good morning.” She didn’t reply. Sighing, he looked around and smiled, all the horses in this section were all young colts. There was a nice breeze and it looked like some rain was coming in, the horses were showing it, running and bucking, enjoying the cool morning. “Do you see why I enjoy it out here?” He didn’t look back at her, if she didn’t want to talk to him, he’d just talk to her. “The colts love mornings like this, wouldn’t really want to ride any of them right now, though.” He smiled slightly. “Watch that dapple gray out there,” he pointed out to a large colt running a ways in front of the herd, “He’s a wild one to ride. He’s fast and can move in just about every direction. Right now’s just play, and he’s still the craziest one.” The colts turned and started to run back toward the barn, bucking and kicking and crow-hopping. John laughed as one of the colts split off and commenced to bucking and squalling like he had the saddle on his back again. Then he stopped, his legs braced apart and head straight up, nostril flared. Suddenly he squealed and bolted off the catch up with the rest of them, his head down and outstretched. His tail was clamped down and he was dodging back and forth like he was bucking without getting any air under himself. John smiled as Sam’s laughter drifted to his ear. This is what makes this life good, he thought suddenly. Now for a short time he’d get to share his knowledge with someone who truly seemed to love it.

“Sam, what happened last night?” She stopped laughing and John could feel her freeze. “Sam, I don’t know why you came here, why you were sent here, if you’re going to stay around for the two months I need to know what’s up.” He looked up at her, her eyes were squeezed shut and her shoulders hunched. “Sam?”

She shook herself and opened her eyes. “Alright, how much do you know about me?”

“For sure?” John paused, “I know your name and I know something’s wrong.”

She nodded and looked at him calmly, her blue eyes deceivingly calm. “Well, your mother and my mother got together and somehow pulled together enough money to send me out here. My mom wanted to send me somewhere a lot sooner, but couldn’t find a way to. I guess your mother finally found a way to help and gave my mom over half the plane ticket fare. I had to get away from my family. I couldn’t get free and for the most part my mom couldn’t help, your mother did.” She stopped and sighed, shaking her head.

Sam was silent for a long time, just watching the colts. John looked away, trying not to push if she didn’t want to say more. She started suddenly, barely above a whisper; her voice was cut deep into his skin. “My father has abused me for as long as I remember. About when I turned ten he started coming into my bed at night.” She stopped and shuddered, “I haven’t been allowed to go anywhere for more than a day for over eight years. My mom tried to take me and run away six years ago. He just tracked us down. He beat her to the point that she didn’t leave her room for three days, during which he stayed in my room. I took care of her when he left during the day and skipped school until I could move well enough to get through the halls and classes without being asked questions.” Again she stopped, then slowly continued, her voice low and rough. “She told me never to tell anyone. He’d promised her that if she complained or said anything about him to anyone he would kill her, I guess it applied to me too.” She looked at John coldly. “I haven’t worn t-shirts or anything showing more than my wrists, my neck or just my ankles since I was six.” John looked at her quickly and noticed the black jeans and gray turtle neck. “Yeah, it’s not a fashion statement,” Sam caught his eye, “it’s survival. Our mothers worked together quickly and quietly somehow. I didn’t know until the day before yesterday that I was coming out here. The last thing my mom told me was that she hoped I would be happy out here with you and hoped we’d get along. My father has no way to find out I’m here. He can’t follow me. I don’t know what will happen to her.” She stopped and looked away, the rising sun glowing on her cheekbones. The stallion was still standing by her, he nuzzled into her lap, pushing his nose into her hands.

John stood silently for a while, looking across the pasture at the rising sun. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s nothing.” she muttered. “It’s not your fault, I didn’t even feel the bruises. When you touched me I didn’t see you. I saw my father again. I thought he’d somehow followed me. Everything inside me was screaming to run.” She broke off and looked at him ignoring the awkward silence. “You haven’t ridden him yet have you?”

John looked over at the stallion, startled by the change of subject. “No, why?”

“There aren’t any saddle marks on his back, nothing to show what he’s gone through. People could look at him and say he looks healthy and happy and free.” She stroked the horse’s forehead and watched the the stallion close his eyes.

John looked at the horse then at Sam. “True, I’ve already had several people offer to buy him, they don’t know what he’s like.”

“They don’t know who he is. He’s scared, where did you get him?” She looked at John, her hand resting on the stallion’s light gray nose, the sun turning his coat a soft gold.

“A horse trader.”

“He’s been hurt, and scarred, you can’t tell it by his appearance really.” She brushed his mane to the other side of his neck. “Come here, please, I want you to see this.”

Slowly he walked beside her, looking at the stallion’s pale colored neck. “Did you notice this previously?” Her fingers traced some faint marks on the stallion’s neck, the remnants of a freeze brand. “He’s a mustang, he’s scared and doesn’t trust anyone, he sees ropes and helicopters, tight fences and feels pain when he sees most people I bet.”

Running his hand across the brand, John looked over the stallion and then turned to Sam. “I didn’t know you knew so much about horses.” He was shocked that he hadn’t notice the freeze brand before.

“My parents’ house is relatively close to your father’s horse farm. I’ve spent a little bit of time with the grooms in the barn after you left. I learn fast.” She kept her gaze on the stallion.

“You could probably train him if you want. He seems to like you more than me.” Pausing, John watched her reaction.

“He’ll work for you now that you know what he’s scared of.” She looked down at her feet. “Sometimes it’s just learning why they react the way they do. A lot of people will want him, but when they realize he’s scarred they won’t want him, won’t want to deal with him and he’s on the move again. Not unlike when they deal with other people.” She muttered.

John carefully touched Sam’s shoulder, it seemed stupid to turn back on what he had believed strongly earlier but he couldn’t make himself turn her away. “You’re welcome here, you know that right? I won’t hurt you or anything, you’re safe here.”

She looked up at him and smiled sadly. “I know. I’ve enjoyed it here for the most part really. It’s beautiful with the horses and all.” Looking around the pastures to the barns and the house she sighed. “I probably don’t have anywhere to go back to now anyway. I doubt he took it well that I’m gone.” Looking back at John she smiled. “Two months. I’ll be able to find a job somewhere if you let me use your computer, I can cook and clean the house, and I’ll hopefully be out of your hair at the end of this summer.”

John smiled, he couldn’t help it. The way she talked to him was like she was paying him for babysitting or rent for the room. Just like he’d thought he’d be babysitting her. “Don’t worry about anything. You can stay as long as you wish, just promise one thing.”

“What?” she leaned away from him.

“Teach me your touch with horses. I couldn’t even get close enough to that stallion to see the freeze brand till now, and an extra hand could be helpful.” He motioned to the barn and started to walk. If he was going to let her in his life best to jump in all the way.

“What are we going to do?”

He looked over his shoulder and paused. “Feed horses of course, I was late already and now they’re going to be mad.” He started to go toward the barn then stopped and waited for her to catch up. When she got to his side, he put his hand on her shoulder and walked with her to the barn. “So you in?”

“Seems like it, at least for now.” She looked around as he led her to the barn in silence.

Two months, he thought. His mother never was one to push him into things really but this time it seemed a good thing. Maybe he had been needing someone, if nothing else to get out of the rut of his life. Something different.

The stallion nickered quietly and trotted along the fence after them. When he couldn’t follow he circled back and ran to the barn. John looked over his shoulder as the palomino stallion ran. Sam seemed to be good company, for him and the horses. Maybe if her scars could heal a little, and if he could convince her, she would stay two months, or longer. Hopefully.

 

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