GHOST RIDERS

     I was fighting the second migraine in a week’s time. Leaning my forehead against the window glass, I listened to the raindrops falling outside. It was soothing … like one of those apps that mimic sounds of nature.

     The ants were scuttling about below me, frantically trying to scurry from shelter to shelter. The smart ones had umbrellas; the others would have bad hair days.

     I had tried to personalize them years ago by calling them people, but I could never see their faces. From my Chicago high-rise office, they all looked like ants to me.

     On the train ride home, I wallowed in self-pity for as long as my conscious would allow before rallying my spirits sufficiently enough to get me through the rest of the day. Scooting into the isle, my eyes fell upon a splash of color under the seat in front of me. I snatched up the piece of paper …

~   ~   ~

     I could barely contain myself when my son, Ryan, walked through the door that evening. “Come in and talk to me,” I invited from the kitchen, hoping to engage him in conversation before he retreated to his room.

     He lumbered in with fatigue, heaved a sigh, and rested his lanky frame against the wall.

     “How was your day?” I asked casually, multi-tasking dinner preparations. “Anything new happen?”

     Ryan crossed his arms; a sure sign of his indifference. “I quit my job.”

     Pausing mid-motion from taking the casserole out of the oven, I silently counted to three before standing up. Forcing a smile, I responded as cheerfully as possible. “Perfect! Dinner’s ready!”

     I swear, there’s nothing more rewarding than taking a teenager by surprise! With difficulty, I resisted the urge to close his gaping mouth; instead, I sauntered past as if I hadn’t noticed.

     Despite my best attempts, talk waned. By dessert, Ryan’s responses were little more than Neanderthal grunts of varying intensity. Wanting to share my proposal before speech left him completely, I snatched the brochure and smacked it open on the table.

     “So … what do you think?”

     “Nice,” he mumbled, skimming the contents in two seconds flat. “If you like that sort of thing.” The thing in reference was a week-long adventure at a dude ranch nestled snuggly against the rugged Sawtooth Mountains. Ryan pushed the leaflet aside as he kicked his chair back and left.

     I had nothing but a table full of dirty dishes and a quickly vanishing dream.

     “Besides,” he called back callously, “you don’t even have a horse.” That was a low blow, even for him.

     My horseless state was a wound that had never healed. Among other things. We’d had a family, once upon a time. A small homestead, two parents, a boy and another on the way. Happy times.

     And then … it all went away.

     I miscarried. He found someone new; someone happier. Someone who still smiled and laughed.

     Somehow, I landed a high-paying job in a far-off city, but lost myself along the way. And Ryan bore witness to it all. Poor kid. He deserved better.

     I sat there stewing over his words, resenting the sluggish thud of footsteps on the stairs. In a last-ditch effort to battle my growing disappointment, I latched onto a desperate plan: If I couldn’t cajole him with kindness, I’d bully him with parental authority! I ran to the stairwell and employed the most matriarchal voice I could muster. “Yeah, well neither do you, Buddy, but you’re coming with me!”

     A slamming door was my only answer.

     Right. We’ll see about that!

~ ~ ~

     Thanks to the pretty young passenger in 17C, the plane ride was as uneventful as I could have hoped for. Unfortunately, her departure coincided with the loss of my son’s newly acquired manners, and it occurred to me how I would miss that girl! 

~   ~   ~

     “You got to be kidding!” Ryan repeated, bouncing out of his seat when I failed to avoid yet another crater-sized pothole.        

     “The best places to vacation are found in the most remote locations!” I cheerfully informed him, praying for a measure of truth in that made-up-on-the-spot statement.

     Grunt. Somewhere between the airport and this lonely stretch of gravel road, Ryan’s vocabulary had regressed from eloquent orator to borderline mute.

     Towards evening, we pulled up the driveway of the ranch and into a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by gently sloping foothills. Golden cottonwoods filtered the sunlight; the dappled radiance caused the quaint settlement to glow with a warm welcome.

     Several joints crackled in protest as I unfolded my bones and exited the vehicle. I smiled ruefully as Ryan bounded out and slam-dunked an imaginary basketball into an equally imaginary hoop. A crimson flush promptly blended the colors of his hair and skin as a burst of applause broke out from an approaching foursome.

     All wore cowboy hats, two sported ankle-length dusters, one had a suede vest, and the other a loosely tied red bandana. The jingle of spurs beat a synchronized staccato as their boots fell in quick time. Minus the firearms and the fact that one was a woman, it could have been a scene straight out of Silverado.

     “Well done! I guess you’ll be wantin’ to see our court before the night’s out.” A middle-aged woman detoured from the group, grinning broadly.

     “Howdy, my name’s Evelyn!” she greeted, removing a dusty, rawhide glove before extending her hand. Her kind eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. By the deep honey glow of her skin, it was apparent that the majority of her days were not spent idly within the comforts of the lodge.

     Ryan reached out to grasp her hand in return, and I watched in good humor as he fought to regain some semblance of dignity.

     “You have a court here?” he asked, scanning the rustic premises with blatant disbelief.

     “Lighted at that, son” Evelyn replied with a knowing wink.

     The smile beaming on my son’s face was a rare display of unguarded pleasure, and the teenager before me was suddenly transformed into the boy I once knew. How I missed that kid.

     By some stroke of luck – or more likely the graciousness of our hostess – our quarters were last in the row of tidy guest cabins. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump from the court. I fell asleep to the mournful cry of coyotes and the muted thump, thump . . . swish of a ball in constant motion.     

~   ~   ~

     I awoke in the gray, pre-dawn of morning. The window had been left open a crack so I could listen to Ryan. Like a compass to north, the aroma of strongly brewed coffee drifted in on the morning breeze and found me. Not the pitch black, bitter bark cowboy coffee you see them strain through a dirty sock and drink in the movies. No, this was an enticing blend of fresh grounds imported from exotic, faraway lands.

     I dressed quickly, pausing to cover my son’s protruding foot. A hint of lipstick and a tousle to my coppery ringlets was good enough for me. Noiselessly, I tiptoed out the door.

     There were a few guests huddled around the fire pit; more than I had expected at this early hour. I made eye contact with a few and nodded before finding a seat on one of the surrounding logs. A tall, bowlegged old-timer leisurely made his way over. He had a handlebar mustache to make Sam Elliott proud and I ducked my head to hide a grin. I was typecasting, but I couldn’t help it.

     He had just fetched a skillet fresh off the coals; my mouth instantly salivated. Touching the brim of his hat in greeting, he drawled out a slow, “Mornin’ Ma’am,” before offering me a piping hot buttermilk biscuit drizzled with butter.

     I hesitated before reminding myself that carbs don’t count on vacation. Besides, they were small … so I took two. With an ear-splitting grin, he made a jab with his thumb, directing my gaze towards an oversized, rustic bench arrayed with coffee, cocoa, and tea.

     A basket of lumpy, homemade marshmallows sat next to the cocoa. I popped one in my mouth, trying to be discreet. Now this is roughing it! Once my mug was filled, I rejoined the others in a cloud of steam and foggy breath.

     It was the first breakfast I could remember savoring in years.

~   ~   ~

     After grub, Ryan and I dutifully returned to our cabin to pack. Apparently, the tried and true way to break in new cowpokes was to get them out on the trail and accrue a few saddle miles. Our goal was to ride all day, camp overnight, and ride back. Unless, of course, you preferred to be hauled around in the chuck wagon . . . the equivalent of sitting on the bench during a game.

     After a quick appraisal of our skills, I was assigned a stocky, roman-nosed buckskin named Wyatt. Though I’d gone years without sitting a horse, the familiar rhythms gradually came back to me. I looked to see how matters sat with Ryan.

     Despite the low-brimmed baseball cap, it was not hard to miss his disapproving scowl; he was the only rider wearing one. Matched with a short, overweight, dapple gray mare, Ryan regarded himself as the laughing stock of the group.

     “So, how does Annie ride?” I asked curiously as the two of them drew alongside.

     He shrugged. “Like a barrel.” Under hooded brows he was covertly appraising my gelding.

     Wyatt, undoubtedly, was the ultimate cowboy horse. Annie, on the other hand, resembled a child’s pony whose over-indulgent diet consisted primarily of sweet corn and sugar cubes.

     “It’s kinda cool that she’s named after Annie Oakley though, right?”

     “Mom, that is so lame.”

     “Well, best make the most of it. As they say out here, we’re burnin’ daylight!” I cantered off feeling a twinge of guilt. And then … it was gone.

~   ~   ~

     Whether it was the settling weight of an over-sized T-bone and baked potato, or the novelty of tenting out under the stars, sleep eluded me. Tossing and turning got me nowhere, so I unzipped the flap and turned my bag around. At least that way I could contemplate the night sky.

     I had little enough time for reflection before an iron-like grip seized my leg.

     “Ryan!” I hissed, glancing around to make sure nobody had heard my stifled scream. “I thought you were sleeping!”

     “Sorry,” he whispered sheepishly. From his tone, I could tell he was nervous. “I saw something, that’s all.”

    “What? A spider or something?” I chafed my arms and gave my pillow a frantic shake.

     “No! Up there.”

     “Where? I don’t see anything.”

     “A rider, on that ridge . . . see him?” Ryan leaned a hand over my shoulder to point out his discovery. I smiled at the boyish excitement in his voice and the casual, affectionate gesture.

     “Oh yeah, now I do. He and his horse are so perfectly stock still – like some kind of … I don’t know … twilight sentinel.”

     The panorama before us was tranquil. Too tranquil for Ryan’s overactive imagination. Instead, he opted to let loose the reins and explore the dramatic.

     Shaking his head, he speculated. “No. More like a bandit on the run. Or a ranger, looking for a bandit . . . or . . . ”

     “ . . . or a Ghost Rider?” I speculated, whistling the first line of the tune for effect.

     He responded with a blank stare and double blink. “Huh?”

     “You know, the song . . . Ghost Riders in the Sky?” I prompted.

     Ryan ventured a guess. “Is it from one of your old black and white westerns?” He was trying to be helpful, but coming off as something other than.

     It was annoying to be reminded of the years under my belt and my reply was a bit testier than intended. “How should I know? Westerns in my day were in color!” A screen shot of a young, handsome, and very-much-in-color Kevin Costner flashed through my brain. Black and white indeed!

     “It’s just a famous old cowboy song that everyone has heard.”

      “Don’t know it.”

     “Never mind.”

     “Sing it to me.”

     “Uh, yeah … no.”

     “Come on, Mom! Sing it!”

     My inability to carry a tune remains uncontested – and the subject of amusement. Pitchy and off-key at best. Still, I had Ryan’s undivided attention …                  

     “Ok,” I conceded, clearing my throat theatrically. My start was hesitant; I was self-conscious and fumbling to gain momentum. But it didn’t take me long to slip into a cowboy twang and belt the words – in a hushed whisper, of course. No need to wake the others with my cacophony.     

     I glanced at Ryan with a lop-sided smile and a shrug after I finished. I was feeling a little silly, yet immensely pleased with myself that I’d remembered all the verses. He was rolling his eyes and shaking his head in disbelief, making us both laugh out loud.

     “You did insist!”

     “Yeah, I know,” he agreed, quick to shoulder his part of the blame. Who was this guy?

     Just then, a distant low rumble escalated to a thunderous pounding, drawing closer and closer with every hoofbeat. We watched in amazement as a band of riders crested the ridge at a full gallop, engulfing our lone rider. Within seconds, they were all gone without a trace. Before the dust had even cleared, the ridge was standing strangely empty.

     We lay quiet in the stillness that followed, each lost to our own thoughts. Ryan was the first to break the silence. “Um, Mom . . .”

     The mystery of what we had witnessed left me spellbound. “Um … yeah?” I answered absently.

     “It’s just – I mean . . . ”  I turned to Ryan, but he was slow to meet my gaze. Finally, he blurted the words in a rush. “I’m sorry about Mirage.”                                                          

     “Oh,” I replied, taken back at the mention of my horse I had lost to colic. “I didn’t think you remembered him.” I couldn’t manage more past the lump settled snuggly in my throat.

     “I don’t remember much. I just remember you crying a lot. You – you really liked him . . . didn’t you?”

     Lost for words, I reached over to squeeze Ryan’s hand, daring to hold it for a few precious moments. As I made to pull away, the gentle pressure of his fingers surrounded my own.

     It was an enormous gesture.

     For me, the mystery of the Ghost Riders paled in comparison to the expression of my son’s love. No matter what life gave or took away, I would strive to keep things like this between us. Without a shadow of a doubt, I knew what we had to do.

     “Son?”

     “Yeah, Ma?”

     “How’d you like to get the heck out of Dodge?”

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