When I heard the squealing raucous laughter coming from the family room, I stuck my head in to see what all the commotion was about. My eldest daughter Libby and her friends were pointing at the television and making comments about the program on the screen. I'm not the type of mom who interferes in her children's social lives but my attention was drawn to image on the TV.
Libby turned and gazed at me with a huge smile.
"What are you watching?" I whispered.
"Mom, it's called "Exiled" on MTV. They take a spoiled teenage girl and send her to live with a family in Africa, or India...so she can learn responsibility...she has to live and work with them for a week. The girl's in India and they're using cow crap to clean the backyard...Can you imagine?"
My daughter turned her attention back to the show and I watched until a commercial came on. I retreated to the kitchen as a flood of memories marched through my brain.
It was thirty years ago that I felt like the overwhelmed young lady on the TV show. Like her, my parents exiled me for an entire summer to live and work with relatives in the hopes that it would straighten me out and teach me to be a reliable, dependable individual. I was eighteen and a self-absorbed, spoiled teen girl growing up in Southern California, badly in need of an attitude adjustment.
My exile was to my Uncle Carl and Aunt Gladys' ranch in Arizona. I was remanded to their custody the summer of '78'. I'd just graduated high school and decided to delay attending college for at least a year or two. My argument with my parents, that I wanted to find myself. My folks knew it was just bull shit and I guess at the time I did too.
In reality, I was a slacker, a term I've heard my daughters use to describe some of their friends. But, it fit me to a "T" back then. As I prepared snacks for the eight teenage girls in my family room, I saw her image in my head as clear as the day I first laid eyes on her. Samantha, the mere recollection of her name sent emotion and feelings thundering through me.
Libby bopped into the kitchen to pick up the food.
"Hey mom, you ok?" She asked? I must have looked lost, wrapped up in the past.
"Yes, I'm fine," I assured her with a smile.
Libby was my eldest and so unlike me as a teen. A senior in high school, she was an excellent student and athlete. My daughter was self-motivated and driven to succeed.
But, the memories, the sweet memories of that magical time with Samantha burned bright...
My mom and dad made it abundantly clear; I was expected to cooperate with no belly aching.
"We've made life too easy for you Melanie...you need to learn responsibility...how to fend for yourself..." my mother said with steely determination.
No teary goodbyes as I stalked on the bus, turning my back to my parents. I refused to give either of them a hug and hurt their feelings by being a heartless bitch. Serves them right! I thought menacingly at the time.
There wasn't another teenager on the face of the planet more brooding or miserable than me that bright June day as I rode the Greyhound bus. My supposed hatred for my parents reached dizzying heights in my mind. How could they do this to me! I was livid and at the time I saw absolutely no rhyme or reason for shipping me off to Arizona.
My uncle met me at the bus depot in an old Plymouth station wagon with no air conditioning. After a quick greeting, we loaded my gear into the back and took off. I recalled him as a reticent kind of man but he did inform me it was twelve miles to the ranch called the "Lazy J".
The heat of day was oppressive and I wondered if it was always this dry and hot in Arizona. Eventually, he turned onto a dusty side road and we climbed a long hill until the ranch came into view. Even in my sullen mood I was impressed as it looked like something out of a western movie complete with wind mill.
A large main house in the clapboard Victorian style with half a dozen outbuildings made up the immediate compound. A range of mountains could be seen in the distance and everywhere I looked I saw dust and dirt. Not much greenery since the "Lazy J" was located in a high desert plateau. But, for sheer beauty, the scenery was awe inspiring; big sky and incredible vistas.
My mom's cousin, Aunt Gladys greeted me warmly. Standing next to her was a very pretty, sleek blonde haired girl and it took me a minute to realize that it was my "cousin" Samantha. Uncle Carl was Samantha's father and my Aunt Gladys was her step-mother and although we weren't cousins in the technical sense, I always referred to her as my "cousin". I hadn't seen her in ten years and she sure had changed.
Before I left California, my mother informed me that Samantha would take charge of me and show me the ropes. The last time I saw her we were both eight years old and my folks were driving to Kansas City to visit my grandparents. We made a brief stop to have lunch and a quick look around the ranch. I remembered Samantha as very shy but likable.
Unfortunately, my surly attitude didn't dissipate one iota as I dragged my bags to a small cabin at the far end of the stable. Just big enough for two, I discovered that I was sharing with Samantha but my first thought; why would she want to live in a ramshackle cottage when she had a nice room in the main house. She must have been reading my mind.
"My folks want me live out here with you...anyways they'll have an extra guest room for the summer..." she stated shyly.
Basically it was one big room with a tiny bathroom at one end that housed a toilet and sink. I looked around at the spare but western style furniture, a wood table, two chairs, large oval hook rug on the wood floor and wood frame bunk bed that occupied one wall. . No TV, no telephone, none of the amenities of modern life that one expects to find. The windows were open and the bright print cotton curtains pulled back to let in the sunlight and breeze.
"Ya want the upper or lower?" she offered.
I must have looked puzzled until she gestured to the bed.
"Oh...ah, lowers fine."
I sat on the unmade bed, my gaze fixed on the floor. I was spending four months, four long months in this bucolic cabin with Samantha as my friends went surfing, hung out at the mall meeting guys and having fun while I was stuck here in this hot, arid hell hole.
"Hey Melanie, want me to help ya get unpacked?" Samantha asked kindly, snapping me out of my day dream.
As Samantha stowed my belongings, she explained the list of chores I'd be expected to perform. My mouth hung open from the shock; muck the horse stalls, feed and water the horses, saddle them, brush them and cool them down; she kept going but my brain shut down from overload. At home no one expected me to do anything, not even lift a finger.
During the summer months the ranch operated as a kind of dude ranch. Guests came to get a taste of the Old West; a new concept that allowed ranchers like my uncle to survive financially for the rest of year when it operated solely as a horse farm.
"We, you and me, work six days a week with Tuesday afternoon off and all day Thursday...Most folks come on the weekends and that's our busiest time. The most we've had is 20 guests at a time and its work, work, work..." she declared.
My head spun from the harsh reality of my situation.
The first week was hellish. Samantha made everything look easy while I struggled to get water and feed to the horses. When one task was completed it was on to the next; the list was endless.
I complained bitterly about everything; the crack of dawn wake up time, the foul odor of manure, the dust that seemed to be everywhere, the harsh climate that dried out my skin and the heavy work load, to just name a few.
Samantha would roll her eyes and give me words of encouragement but by lunch time I was beat. Most afternoons I simply went back to my bunk and lay down for the rest of the day leaving Samantha to do the chores of two people. She never complained or reproached me for my lack of commitment.
Whenever Samantha would try and talk to me, I'd ignore her or walk away. I should have worn a sign around my neck,
"First Class Bitch"
Samantha was kind and sweet to me when I treated her like garbage. I have to say she didn't lose her cool once. To be honest the work was hard but I could have put more heart into it and I gave up too soon if a chore was demanding.
One afternoon Samantha showed me the correct way to hoist a bag of feed.
"You have more leverage if you do it this way," and she demonstrated the proper procedure.
I got the bag half way and fell backwards landing on my rump. When I looked up and saw that Samantha had a very amused look on her face, I stalked out of the barn.
"Hey, Melanie, don't give up..." I heard her say to my retreating figure.
But, the worst of all was mucking the stalls. I absolutely detested doing it and did such a half ass job that Samantha would finish the task after me.
On Thursday, our one day off, Samantha asked if I'd like to learn to ride a horse. Since childhood, I harbored a desire but my bruised ego was too hurt for me accept her invitation.
"Nah...that's for sissies," I stated nastily.
"You don't mean that...I think you'll love it...if you try it, you just might change yer mind..."
"NO THANKS!" I growled.
"Ok, suit yerself," she said, and departed for the stable.
Almost immediately I regretted my words because I really did want to learn. Samantha was gone most of the day as I wallowed in my misery, feeling mighty sorry for myself.
How Samantha put-up with me and my awful attitude, I'll never know.
By Tuesday afternoon of the following week, I'd had enough. I felt friendless and alone. Samantha insisted that I take my first riding lesson and wouldn't take no for an answer
Determined to run away, I stuffed some clothes and money in a back pack and walked by the stable. Samantha was in the corral saddling a horse when she saw me. She quickly left the paddock and strolled towards me.
"Can I give ya some advice?" Samantha asked, with an exaggerated drawl.
I whirled around and scowled at her.
"Towns twelve miles that way," and she pointed in the opposite direction I was walking.
When I turned and walked past Samantha, she was smiling broadly
"Do ya have any water? It's a hot day...you want me to fetch ya a canteen?" she asked kindly.
Samantha was making my blood boil with her down home folksy attitude and I got right up in her face. I had to look up of course as she was a full head taller than me.
"Shut the fuck up!" I screamed at her.
"I'm jes trying to help...that's all," she stated coolly.
Why I lost control, I can't say but I tried to take a swing at her. Samantha easily blocked my punch and hit me with a crisp hard left and right that deposited me on the seat on my jeans. My raw anger was replaced by an enormous amount of self-pity and I started bawling.
Samantha bent over me with a very sympathetic expression on her lovely face.
"If you're gonna fight, you should at least know how to defend yourself," she stated with kindness in her voice, dropping her folksy drawl.
Samantha helped me to my feet and brushed the excess dust off my britches. Tears ran down my face and I couldn't bear to look at her. I felt like a piece of shit for being such an enormous pain in the ass to her when she went out of her way to be kind to me.
"I'm sorry Samantha...I'm sorry..." I said several times as my eyes leaked like a flooded river.
Samantha took me in her arms and held me close.
"Hey, don't cry...I'm not mad at ya..."
Samantha tenderly rubbed my back trying to soothe me. Abruptly she pulled back and gazed at my face.
"I'd better get ya to the bunkhouse...yer gonna need an icepack for yer eye...and your chins gonna be hurtin' too..." she said with a serious look.
Inside our quarters, Samantha had me lean back in the chair as I applied the cold. My chin was sore and it hurt to talk. .
"I'm afraid yer gonna have a pretty big mouse under that eye," she stated regretfully.
"I deserve it...I've been acting like a stuck-up bitch."
As remorse for my actions consumed me, my entire attitude changed. Our free afternoon and instead of a riding lesson, I try to run away. The sad part; I had no idea where to go. I couldn't go home, my parent's would have shipped me right back to the ranch.
Samantha sat next to me and offered to hold the ice on my swollen eye.
"Samantha, can I ask you something?"
"Yeah, sure...go ahead...but call me Sam, most everybody does..."
"Do you like living here...at the ranch...do you get lonely?"
Samantha looked thoughtful for a moment.
"I guess it's lonely sometimes but I work a lot in the summers when we have guests to look after. I love ridin' horses, takin' the guests on trail rides. I really enjoy the overnight camp experience. Sleepin' out among the stars...every once in a while, you'll hear a coyote howl..."
"Have ya thought about going to college?" I asked.
"Yeah, I have...I wanna be a teacher, always have, since I was a kid...but I decided to take a year off and help the folks with the place. They'll have to hire somebody when I'm gone..."
Samantha looked wistful, caught up in the moment.
"Ya know Sam... you work like a guy...I mean you do everything the ranch hands do..." I said admiringly.
Samantha blushed and I felt my young heart flutter.
"Have to...daddy always said that I was capable of doing everything a man could and he was right...before I forget...tomorrow morning I'll give ya that riding lesson I promised today...we don't need to have the guest horses ready until nine so that'll give us plenty of time...think you'll be up for that?"
"Yeah...I really want to..." I said enthusiastically.
Samantha looked at me fondly.
"Sorry about yer eye," she took the ice pack off to assess the situation and winced.
"Don't feel sorry for me...I had it coming."
When I gazed into Samantha's deep blue eyes, my heart pounded with an emotion that I scarcely recognized. Do I have feelings for my cousin? I questioned myself silently.
Samantha re-applied more cold and we chatted about our hopes and dreams for the future.
"What's it like...living in California?" she asked shyly at one point.
"Nothing like here..."
I spoke truthfully about my life with my parent's in our upscale suburban neighborhood and about my piss poor attitude toward them.
"Do ya hate them?" she asked.
"No...I don't but they made life too easy for me and I'm spoiled...that's why they sent me here...maybe I'd grow up a little...appreciate life more...I guess what I'm trying to say is...learn to appreciate what I have...learn how to do things for myself..."
"Well, ya came to the right place!" she crowed.
I had to agree with her, the "Lazy J" was a workaholic's dream.
Samantha gazed at me with such a winning smile that I was momentarily lost in the upwelling of good feelings that surged through me. For the rest of the afternoon she watched over me like mother hen, checking to see how my eye looked and holding some ice on my sore chin.
As we chatted about our lives, I realized that Samantha was no dumb cowgirl, quite the contrary. Her intelligence and wit shone through and I was very grateful that my "cousin" had taught me a lesson in humility. Something was stirring inside and while the true nature of my feelings eluded me, I gained an enormous amount of respect and affection for her.
Early the next morning, just past sunrise, Samantha gave me my first riding lesson. She led my horse out of the barn and with consummate patience explained what to do. It was rough going in the beginning; getting the saddle fitted properly seemed so complicated and I needed her help lifting it up onto Ginger's back.
As I stood holding Ginger's reins, Samantha led a smart looking chestnut mare from the stable and tied her to a post. I gawked at the stately horse.
"...she's beautiful..." I said admiringly.
"Daddy gave her to me for my eighteenth birthday last month...it was a big surprise...I tried not to cry but I was so happy I just couldn't help myself...I thought he was going to sell her at the horse auction in town...I'm really glad he didn't..."
Samantha showed me how to mount up and once I was aboard, we proceed at a slow canter towards the distant mountains. I marveled at the majestic surroundings, the scrub brush that dotted the landscape, the different hues and colors of the rocks and soil.
However Samantha was a true task master and taught me how to turn Ginger, make her slow down or speed up. I wasn't ready for the horse to gallop and sensing my discomfort, she stayed by my side encouraging my progress, gently helping correct mistakes. Damn! The girls a natural born teacher, I mused to myself.
After a half hour of riding, Samantha insisted that we stop and take a break. After we dismounted, we stood holding the reins side by side and I saw her smile as she gazed at the extraordinary scenery.
"You look happy Sam," I said admiringly.
Samantha turned to face me but her upturned mouth dropped to a frown.
"What's wrong?" I asked with concern
Samantha pointed to my eye.
"Is it really bad?"
"Yeah, ya got a classic shiner...daddy's gonna be pissed off..."
"We'll tell him it was an accident that...I ah...fell against the door knob."
"He'll never believe it..." she said wistfully, shaking her head.
"I'll think of something, ok?"
"Sure, whatever you say Melanie."
"Call me Mel...all my friends call me Mel..."
Samantha gazed at me fondly then quickly looked at her wristwatch.
"It's late, we gotta head back," she stated urgently.
When we arrived at the stable, we cooled down our horses and ate some breakfast with the other ranch hands. They paid little attention to me but were courteous to Samantha and she knew most of them by name.
I helped Samantha all morning and never complained once. The back breaking work exhausted me but I was determined to show her that I was made of sterner stuff.
During lunch, Samantha appraised my physical condition.
"You look beat Mel...I'd better take it easy on you this afternoon."
"No way, I can do it," I said with steely resolve.
Samantha chuckled and shook her head.
"Remember, I need you tonight for the guest campfire and sing-along."
"You can count on me!"
Samantha with a big smile on her face gave me a friendly hug.
By late afternoon, I was beyond exhausted. We were brushing down the guest horses when Samantha's father walked into the stable yard and saw my eye.
"Samantha!" he barked and gestured for her.
I kept working on the horse in front of me but watched their conversation out of the corner of my good eye. My uncle's face was stern, grave looking and when he walked away, Samantha returned with her head down.
Immediately, I went to her and saw the moisture in her eyes.
"I told him the truth...I couldn't lie to him...he blames me for not showing restraint... said I reacted like a common cowpoke...I'm grounded for the next month...I wanted to take you into town and meet my friends but now...we're stuck here..."
Two tracks of tears meandered down Samantha's lovely face and I took her in my arms.
"I'm gonna talk to him," I insisted.
Samantha wiped away her tears with the back of her hand.
"You'd do that for me?"
Instinctively, I pulled her close.
"I'd do anything for you Sam..." I stated affectionately, and suddenly my eyes misted over.
I didn't get a chance to talk to my Uncle until supper time. He was on the rear porch of the main house and I pled my case like a real attorney. While he was resolute that Samantha should be punished, I whittled away until he relented, probably just to shut me up.