It had warmed up overnight and snowmelt dripped off the eaves over the front porch. At least I thought dripping is what I heard. Then I realized it was the sound of quiet boots. Jake's boots.
It's Saturday and I got up way too early, because I was worried about the palomino foal I'd found yesterday. That's why I sitting at the kitchen table sipping cocoa when I heard his boots shifting from side to side. I stood up and opened the kitchen door.
"You could knock," I said.
Melted snow dripped off the brim of Jake's black hat, too. He stopped blowing breath on his hands to warm them long enough to say, "You could quit stealin' horses."
I looked past him. Blaze the great watch dog was panting and grinning behind Jake. And there was Witch, so I guessed Jake wasn't part of a posse.
Witch, his black Quarter Horse mare, was tied to a hitching rack. She flattened her ears at the sight of me. Witch pretty much only likes Jake. And that's on a good day.
"You know that I don't go around - " When Jake's flat look told me to save my breath, I stepped aside, opening the kitchen door wider. "Just come in."
He didn't refuse, but I don't think he planned to stay long, because he didn't take off his coat or hat before sitting. He rocked his chair back on its back legs and pretended to study the wood beamed ceiling.
I knew what had happened. Jake is the best tracker in the county. The sheriff had called him out to find who had colt-napped the little palomino.
I'd been riding Ace to Mrs. Allen's house, delivering some of Gram's cookies to Mrs. Allen when I saw the colt about to drown in the mud.
Unable to just leave it there, I'd slung the foal over Ace's withers - my good, sweet boy -- and taken it to Mrs. Allen. The palomino wasn't the first little stranger I'd asked her to take in, and she'd had no problem tucking it up in blankets in front of her fireplace.
But I hadn't made the illegal rescue without being discovered.
Even in all this springtime wet, he would've recognized Ace's hoof prints. Besides, I sort of had a reputation for breaking rules when it came to horses.
"Am I in trouble?" I whispered. Overhead, I heard Dad moving around.
Jake shrugged, then looked up at the front window as if he'd heard the Sheriff's car coming before he saw it.
"Give me a hint," I insisted.
"The foal's wild and it was alone, so the lady," he paused to lift his chin toward the window, "went lookin' for its mom."
The baby hadn't been purposely neglected, I thought, at least that was good.
"Would somebody mind telling me what the sheriff's doing at my house at six-thirty in the morning?" Dad asked.
But he didn't wait for an answer. He stormed through the kitchen and out the door.
Dad's always the sort to want to find out things for himself, but I knew if I didn't want to be in trouble with the police and Dad, I should probably go out and speak up for myself.
Jake must have seen my decision on my face, because he lifted my denim jacket with the sheepskin lining off the hook by the door and shoved it at me.
Outside, it turned out that a nervous looking woman named Cindy McPhee had seen the foal standing alone at the side of the highway. She and her son were afraid the little palomino would wander onto the asphalt and be hit by a car.
"We're on our way to Salt Lake City," Mrs. McPhee said. "But we had the ATV's in the trailer, and so I decided we'd go out looking for the mother and leave Ritzy—that's our dog - to protect the little horse."
Her son was over at Mrs. Allen's learning to feed a foal with a bottle.
I was sort of starting to relax when the sheriff said that he'd come over to verify everything, because it was a federal crime to harass wild horses and Mrs. McPhee and I were about to have an interview with someone from BLM.
I caught my breath. I'd only been expecting some sort of scolding. My relationship with the BLM hadn't been that great since my step-mom Brynna stopped working there.
"Can't I just, uh, agree to go over and help Mrs. Allen all day? And help her take care of the maybe-orphaned foal for punishment?" I suggested.
"It's not up to me," the sheriff said, but I was looking after Jake.
Was he deserting me? He strode crossed the ranch yard to Witch.
He'd already swung into the saddle when the sheriff told me, "No room for you in the cab."
He jerked his thumb toward the truck, indicating he and Mrs. McPhee pretty much filled up his truck.
Wincing a little, I looked at Dad.
His thumbs hung from his pockets and he shook his head, probably irritated that he'd have to drive me over to Mrs. Allen's before he'd had breakfast or coffee. But then he narrowed his eyes at something over my shoulder.
I turned to see Witch's brown eyes rolling white as Jake urged her closer. He kicked his left boot clear of its stirrup and held his hand down to me.
"What? You think Witch'll let me ride double with you?" I asked.
"She'll put on a good show if not," Dad said.
How could he joke at a time like this? But if he wasn't too worried, maybe I shouldn't be.
I looked up. Jake didn't meet my eyes, just patiently kept his hand extended so that he could help me mount up.
Riding the thirty minutes over to Mrs. Allen's would help me settle down and get my thoughts straight, I hoped.
"I'll call from jail," I said, weakly.
"I don't think it'll come to that," the sheriff said.
So, I strained my leg up and rested my toe on the stirrup.
"Take my hand," Jake said.
When I did, he gave such a yank, I really had no choice but to vault up on the stirrup, right leg swinging clear of Witch's shiny rump and shaggy tail, to sit behind the cantle of Jake's saddle.
"If I don't hear different," Dad said. "I'll figure you're stayin' on to help out. I'll come get you before dark."
"Thanks, Dad," I said.
Witch's whole hind quarters began to rhumba, so I locked my hands around Jake's waist.
"Let's go, cowboy," I told Jake.
But that was just the good part of the morning, and now I'm about to fall asleep.