I was waiting when the ride came in. The guests were exhausted but happy in spite of all the sore bottoms, aches and pains, grumbling and complaining.
Before Victoria could dismount, I went over, grabbed Misty's reins and led her out of hearing of the guests. Paul, having turned aside to help a guest momentarily, came up just as Vikki started to dismount.
"I love your mare, Kate. She's beautifull!" Vikki gushed.
"She is my mare and you will not ride her again!" I said.
The surprise on her face, the perplexity, registered clearly. "Kate, I'm sorry. Paul said you wouldn't mind."
"That's right, Kate. I had no idea you'd mind. Misty's so gentle and dependable, I didn't want Vikki to get hurt." Paul had put his arm around Vikki's shoulder.
"Well I do mind, Paul. We have plenty of other 'dependable' horses in our string. If Vikki's going to be a part of this family she'd better have her own horse. She isn't going to ride mine."
I had said all I was going to. I led Misty away, unsaddled, brushed her and turned her out. We always rode the last mile at a walk so the horses would be cooled out and ready to turn out when they arrived home--waiting an hour to feed them and us, so everyone had time to relax.
That evening was hot. Just about everybody went swimming in the lake.
Sherry Hilliard threw bread crumbs to the tame mallards that nested there. The baby ducks were old enough now to copy their parents and greedily gobbled up tidbits.
It's peculiar among teenage girls who pal together that one is usually attractive and the other is not. Sherii was goodlooking--not spectacular--but she was cute, with a lot of personality. She flirted a lot, but it was innocent, good-natured flirting, and you could tell she didn't really mean anything by it. She was full of fun and life. She kidded Richard Del la Cruz and managed to avoid anything that would appear to be leading him on, sensing he was a ladie's man and harmless. Not so with Ralph Tully. She seemed to have the good sense to know he was not to be trusted, and avoided him whenever possible.
She flirted with Jim, who didn't flirt back--and she flirted with Paul--who did. Even in front of Vikki, Paul couldn't resist flirting with other women. It was just the way he was. It seems strange to me that the male of the family was the charmer, the flirt. I almost never flirted coyly or without intention, unless I really liked someone. Even then it did not come natural to me, like it did to Paul.
Patty Vickers, Sherri's best friend, could not hope to compete with Sherri. Maybe she wasn't trying to. Quiet, almost mousy, alongside the brilliant color of Sherri's personality, she was a gray speck.
Where Sherri scorned the advances of Ralph Tully, when he made a pass at Patty, she responded. Probably too few men had ever made passes at her for her to recognize the kind he was.
Mentally, from the first, he was on my list of those who'd not be invited back. I hoped we could stave off trouble from that quarter until the two weeks were past. Even among the guests he was not popular. You could sense it under the current in the air. This certainly wasn't turning out to be our normal, easygoing seasonal crowd.
There was a lot of jealousy in the air. You could feel that, too.
The Lightfoots seemed the only ones in the whole crowd who seemed to have come because of what a dude ranch had to offer in the way of recreation: They weren't preoccupied with sex or impressing someone, or jealous because somebody was paying attention to somebody instead of them.
Excluding Jim, of course. He had disappeared, probably to extract himself form the fangs of all the females on the prowl.
Victoria kept trying to keep Paul all to herself. She didn't realize as the host, being partners with me, he had to circulate, to provide entertainment, to keep the guests happy.
After-dinner activity included a night of square dancing. We had Mal Decker and his band, The Rounders, up for the evening. I love square dancing. It's a time when I can let my hair down and almost be a guest instead of hostess. To my surprise, Jim Rhodes joined in the dancing. Suddenly he was in front of me, his eyes lively and laughing into mine, his hand electric as he held me. Then he was gone again and I felt my face hot, my lips too warm, and suddenly the dance wasn't fun anymore.
I got through it and quit. My partner, Richard Del la Cruz, had to find someone else. He chose Georgia Long, who hadn't joined in the first square.
I watched the dance from the bar. I didn't drink, but it was a good place to sit. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, even those who weren't dancing.
Paul was having a great time. Victoria, used to having her men do her beck and call, had declined his invitation to dance, supposing that Paul would stay with her. She didn't really know Paul very well. He found himself another partner--Patty Vickers--and proceeded to teach her to square dance.
The music was lively and Mal a good caller. The Rounders were more than good.
Later on that night I decided to make the rounds. I felt restless, vaguely a little lonely. I don't know what was coming over me lately. There was something I wanted, something I lacked. I never felt I'd ever think it a necessary thing to fall in love, marry someone, be a 'housewife'--that wasn't the life I envisioned for myself. I knew I could never leave SkyHigh, and how many men would feel about this place as I did? And how many could I trust? The land we owned was free and clear. Mom and Dad had lived here all their married lives, and the place had been in Dad's family before that.
I always thought I was happy enough, content here with Mom and Dad and Paul, only in some ways a little more like Dad.
I'm more like Dad was, except I have a temper that flares up every once in awhile. Dad and Paul never seemed to get mad.
I thought about being in love and I got uneasy, thinking about it. I wasn't being fair to myself, either, and I knew it. And for the first time I found myself being a little bit jealous, something I'd always despised in other people.
Well, you without the stick in your eye, cast the first stone! Or something like that. I laughed. I guess I could be as foolish as any other woman who ever thought she was in love.
I saw Jim's face, looking at her while he danced, the same way he'd looked at me. I shrugged. Well, men were fickle and I'd have to work on my problem and figure out a solution for myself. I sure couldn't understand, though, how women could fall for a man's line when it was so obvious to me that's what he was handing out. Maybe Jim was different and maybe he wasn't. Paul sure wasn', I had to admit, even he had a line when it came to women.
I climbed up into the hayloft and sat at the open loft door, looking out over the mountains and ranch. It was a clear, beautiful night, the kind that makes you glad you're alive. I would have liked to stay but it was getting late and we liked an early start to the day. I started for the ladder. The loft was dark, the wide door open on only one end.....I was almost to the ladder when I suddenly realized there was a creepy feeling along my spine, the kind you get when you realize it is pitch black and you are not alone. I heard a small thud, and I turned----
A small white patchy shape ambled over to me and purred up against my leg.
I reached down for the cat. "Jinks! You scared the life out of me, you little alley cat, you!" I picked her up with a lot of relief and then set her down again when I got to the edge.
I stopped. I heard voices down below. I peered over the edge. Down the aisleway between horse stalls, I saw my brother Paul. The girl in his arms was not Victoria, by any means. In the night light I could see her clearly--Georgia Long! Why, she was almost ten years older than Paul! I could hear every word. They weren't taking pains to hide anything.
"Paul....It's so good to see you again. You're so good for me, but...Victoria--I've watched her. She's so jealous of you. She'd never understand."
And Paul laughed. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her. I don't intend to be hogtied and branded. Besides, we aren't doing anything to be ashamed of." Paul hugged her then. I couldn't see if he kissed her or not, because at that moment I looked over across the dark hayloft: Near the other ladder hole I saw the unmistakeable shape of a person--dark, blackly silouetted against a lighter dark of the night.
My blood ran cold. I couldn't see who was there, man or woman, but I knew whoever it was had overheard the same thing I had.
I didn't know what to do. I did't want Paul to think I was eaves-dropping, yet I couldn't just call out "Who's there?" either.
But when I looked again Paul and Georgia were gone. I heard the barn door slide open and close again and then nothing but the sound of horses sleeping. Quickly I put my foot on the ladder and began to lower myself. With just my head showing now above the loft, I glanced over. Whoever was there still was.
"Who's there?" I called.
But the figure moved, and slowly began to walk towards me.
I was down that ladder and out of the barn like a bat out of hell and I didn't stop running until I was in the house.
A little while later I was coming out of the kitchen when I heard the front door open.
From across the darkened hallway I saw her pause, bend to brush something from her pantslegs, and then cross the room and go upstairs.
I walked over. Wisps of hay lay on the entry rug just inside the front door.
I had seen Victoria's face when she turned. I had the uneasy, black feeling that something terrible was going to happen......