“Tian is gone again.” Joe came down the hall, hopping on one foot as he pulled his boot on. “Checked her bedroom and the bathroom. Unless she’s out here.”

“Nope, I thought she was asleep.” Margo puffed her cheeks out and blew a long slow breath out. “Let’s go find her before it gets too hot. She, at least, has learned that running away is a bad idea. I thought we were past this though.” 

“Me too.” Joe said sadly.

Tiana was her most recent foster kid. She was 13 and scared. Of course, if you asked her, she was angry and just wanted to go back to LA to live with, well she wasn’t sure who. The desert sucked though, she had said over and over the first couple of weeks she’d been here. Back when she still raged and threw things, back when Margo was sure she was gonna have to call the foster care folks to come to get her. Then, the rage stopped after she overhead Joe and me commemorating the death of my husband. She’d come timidly into the living room where we had sat holding hands and looking through a pile of photo albums.

“I’ll look in the barn, you jog the track and look around the house and under the porch.” Margo gave instructions as she set off to the barn at a jog. She heard her before she saw her. Her small voice singing an old R&B song. Margo slowed to a walk, not sneaking but not wanting to interrupt either. She looked over her shoulder at Joe and waved to get his attention. She pointed at the barn and gave a thumbs up. He nodded and went into the house.

“She found the slender girl in Skye’s stall, saddling her up like she’d been doing it her whole life. In the stall beside Skye’s was Margo’s main ride, Swirl, also saddled. Mal’s head was poking out of his stall door with a halter on, he was tied to the hook. The girl was out here saddling the horses for their Saturday ride, by herself without being asked. 

“Hey, you want breakfast before we go?” Margo asked, as if she hadn’t just been in a full panic. She stepped into swirl’s stall and checked Tian’s work. “You did a good job!”

“I do want food, I just wanted to get a head start. I fed them already too, they finished eating while I saddled Mal.” The girl smiled, a rare thing and one Margo cherished.

“I’m all for getting out in the cool of the morning. Let me go get a mobile meal together, maybe some breakfast burritos, lunch and toss my coffee in a thermos and we’ll be out. I’ll tell Joe to come help you finish up.” 

“I’m good.” the girl said. “I like the quiet.”

“Okay then, we’ll be out in about 20 minutes, enjoy your quiet time.” She gave the girl a soft look and headed back up to the house. Tian was full of surprises. She’d come a long way since that day in the living room six months ago, and Margo hoped it would continue. If she was honest, she hoped it would bleed over into school soon or the girl was going to fail this year. She just wasn’t much interested in anything school related yet. Margo hadn’t given up though, she’d keep trying. Joe had been a mess too when he’s come to them in 2016, and they’d lost Tim the following year. Now he was 17 and she knew she’d be lost without him.  She was pretty sure neither of them would have survived what had happened to Tim if they hadn’t had each other.

“She’s saddling the horses for our ride.” Margo snorted a laugh as she entered. “I’m gonna whip up some burritos and we’re gonna eat in the saddle. She said she’d like to be alone till we left but could you just keep an eye on the barn? She’s in with Skye and I’m pretty sure they’ll be fine, but this is her first time out there alone.”

“Yep,” He said, plopping down so he could look out the front window at the barn. “With salsa and cheese?” He asked.

“And sour cream and avocado.” Margo grinned and got to work, alternating between cooking at sipping her coffee. She also packed some sack lunches. Trail mix, Jerky, cheese sticks and a juice box. Easy food that wouldn’t spoil or get too smashed in their saddle bags.

It didn’t take long to get out to the barn, big hats, and a long sleeve UV shirt for Tiana in one hand and her thermos in the other. Joe carried the food, with his own hat on his head. Slung over his shoulder was a collection of Teton Hydration Backpacks that all three always wore when they rode. The desert was unforgiving, even at higher altitudes. They all had light jackets and  packs with compasses, blankets, phones, maps, knives, rope, and other items for emergencies in saddle bags. Both kids knew how to use it all too. Margo taught them both before she let them ride out when they’d first gotten to the small ranch.

“I could smell the food coming.” Tian stepped out of Skye’s stall, closing it behind her. “What is it?”

“Breakfast burritos, with water, because milk is nasty in the heat.” She joked softly and plopped the hat on the girl’s kinky curls, and then handed her the long-sleeved shirt. “Go change into that before you eat, use the tack room.” 

Tian darted off to put on the shirt, while Margo checked saddle bags, added water for the horses to them, and a ration of grain for emergencies. People joked at how prepared Margo was when she rode, but you only got lost once before you learned the lesson. She had and she’d learned and she’d never let her kids go through that.

Joe set the burritos on a tack trunk and finished up with Mal, while Margo finished up with Swirl. She heard rather than saw Tian grab her burrito and slip into Skye’s stall. 

“Don’t forget your water pack and sunscreen” She called to both kids as she applied hers and then shrugged her backpack on. She snagged her burrito as she left her mare out into the covered aisle of her pole barn. The stalls inside were made of recycled pallets, and had been built ages ago by her and Tim when they’d bought the house not long after he’d been assigned to Angeles National Forestry service.

She mounted and was sitting in the shade of a scrub oak waiting for the kids while she ate her burrito. The comforting warmth of her thermos of coffee lay against her leg and she knew her bladder would regret her choices in a couple of hours but coffee was life.

The rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevadas where her house was nestled broke into the vista of the desert before her, the odd green circles and squares of agriculture and dots of spring flowers cast the normal beige into a carpet of color. Spring was so gorgeous in the desert, the purple, green, and orange didn’t last long but it was awe-inspiring while it did. She looked over her shoulder when she heard the kids clop up behind her. 

“Where to, up or down?” She asked them. 

“You choose,” Joe said to his sister.

“Can we ride towards the creek?” She said hopefully. “Then we can eat lunch in the shade and maybe splash in the creek a little bit. I put shorts in my pack just in case.”

“I swear you’re a fish.” Margo laughed. When she wasn’t trying to get into the creek, she was in the pool. She handed Tian the sunscreen, even coco skin got sunburned. The girl looked at her askance and Margo arched a brow. Tian sighed and took the tube. Margo took her child’s burrito and watched as the child put the sunscreen on her face, arms, and neck. Hands would be covered with gloves after they ate. They switched burrito and tube again and got on the road. Heading cross country and up and generally east towards Big Rock Creek.

The horses were conditioned for Endurance Rides and took the trip  like the recreation it was and the trio rode single file with Tian in the middle across the desert and up into the trees. All around them, new leaves and spring green broke free of dull brown and last year’s dead grass. Creosote bushes and scrub oak gave way to real trees. Sugar Pines and Ponderosa Pines along with White Fir were broken up by taller Oak and at the peaks of hills you could see the bright leaf green of Cottonwoods and Willow that grew along the banks of the river. 

After a couple of hours in the saddle, they had to ride alongside Bob’s Gap Rd and head up. It didn’t take long for them to hear the water and they worked their way down to follow the stream as it became an actual river running high in it’s banks. The snowmelt had started and the water was sure to be icey. The horses had made this trek before and they were familiar with footing and location. It was another hour before they hit a campground and decided it was a good place to rest. They watered the horses and took the bridles off, each horse was safety tied to a picket that Margo put up, and they sat with their feet in the water. Tian had decided it was too cold to splash but they sat in amiable silence together listening to the river and birdsong. It was Tian who broke the silence.

“Do you think your boss would let me come to work with you, so I could homeschool?” Tian asked hesitantly. “It’s not that I don’t want to learn, it’s just that the kids are not nice to me.”

Joe glanced in surprise at Tian and his expression was mirrored by his mother, though she schooled her’s faster. She took a moment to study the girl. Tian was looking at the water, with trepidation on her face.

“I’m not opposed to the idea, but I’ll need to figure out how to do it, and ask him.” She said, “Can you tell me what’s going on in school? I promise not to charge in with metaphorical guns blazing and make it worse, but if there is bullying going on, the school needs to know.”

“I won’t say anything either, if you don’t want me too.” Joe said “But mom’s right, we can’t let bullying stand.”

“The kids here are bigots.” She said flatly, “Which is ironic since most of the ones I have trouble with are Mexican, no offense.” She looked at Joe. “The white kids just ignore me like I’m not there.”

“Oh honey.” Margo said gently. “I do need to talk to the principal, but I won’t do it until we find some kind of long term solution, okay? You need to keep going to school while I research and find out what I have to do. I’ll call the school district Monday on during my lunch break.”

“Okay.” she said. “Thanks… mom.”

Margo felt the press of tears and she smiled. It’d taken a year, but she finally had said the word. Tian’s own parents had died in gang violence six months before she’d come to Ravenwing Ranch. Margo had been her third try at a Foster home and the placement worker had been hopeful because of Margo and Joe’s loss, and that common ground. Apparently, she’d been right.

“Lunch?” she asked, after another big of time enjoying the silence of nature. 

“Yes, i’m starved.” Joe said, helping everyone to their feet. 

“You’re always hungry.” Both Tian and Margo said in unison and suddenly the tension and worry broke and all three were laughing as they walked barefoot through the dirt to the picnic table and the three brown bags that had been deposited there next to their hydration packs.

As they ate, the kids fell into a conversation about school. Tiana came clean about what had been going on, and the mean girls. There were always mean girls but this time it was worse because she was a new girl and one of only a few African Americans in the area. Margo knew she’d never really understand what the girl went through, from her place of privilege. All she could do is give her a safe home and landing. Of course, she’d home-school her if she could. She could not imagine Ben not letting her bring Tian along to let her do schoolwork in the break room. 

The Feed store was not so busy that Margo could not do both. Ben had known Tim and was a good friend to her family. In the summer the two families shared more than their fair share of grill outs and parties. Ben had grown kids and grandkids that were Tian’s age. He’d be quite upset to know that Tian was struggling.  His son Lucas lived down in Lancaster and worked on the base. His daughter lived in Canyon Country as a Hair Dresser, and Margo’s whole family got their hair cut there. 

It was a long drive but they always made a day of it, often going to the Getty or a museum afterward. Public schools didn’t offer much in the way of the Arts so Margo made sure to give that to her kids. Joe took Guitar lessons and was teaching Tian to play. She did her best as a single mom, with her part-time job and the pension from the Forestry Service.

“I’m not gonna play football this year.” Joe said, snapping her mom out of her musings.

“What? Why?” She asked in surprise.

“I want to ride with you.” He said, “I am not a Junior anymore and Tian can ride as a Junior if she wants, too. I’d rather ride than play football.”

“I can’t really argue with wanting to ride rather than play football. I only ever watched because you played” She laughed. “What about you Tian, do you want to try your hand at a ride on Skye? It’s hard work to get a horse ready.” Tian had gotten used to hanging with Lucas’ family with Joe or alone when Margo went on Rides, which was only every couple of months. It might be nice to have her go on a ride herself, to see what it was about.

“I don’t know if I could win,” she said, hesitantly. 

“You don’t always ride to win, in Endurance you ride to finish.” Joe grinned. “I honestly don’t win that much, yet. Mal’s getting old, and I just ride to do my best. You should try.” 

Tian looked at Margo wide eyed. “May I?” 

“Of course,” Margo smiled, her whole body flooding in relief. Tian wanted to do something, anything, other than what she had too and ride on Saturday. She was thrilled but she wasn’t going to give too much away and scare the girl away.

“This might turn out to be a busy week!” she said before shoving half a cheese stick into her mouth. With that, everyone tucked into lunch.

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