The class went well for the most part. Millie only fell off twice instead of her normal five. She was a wonderful girl, though. Each time she fell she jumped back to her feet enthusiastically. Before she left, I puled her over.
"Let me look and make sure you didn't hurt yourself," I said. "You did a lot better today, sweetie."
Millie beamed. "Thank you, Miss Turner!" She looked around, her eleven year-old face pouting. "Where's Spirit?"
Her mom was staying back but I gestured with my head for her to come over. She nodded once and put her hand on Millie's shoulder.
"Spirit...." I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. This was the hardest part: explaining it to the younger kids. "Spirit has gone to a special ranch," I whispered.
"When's she comin' back?" she asked, her high voice innocent.
I bit my lip and knelt down so I was on eye level with her. I sighed.
"She's not, Millie."
She looked confused then her eyes filled with tears. I sighed and hugged her while she cried a little into my shoulder.
"I'm so sorry, Miss Turner!" she cried and I stroked her hair.
Millie's mother was crying, too. She knew how much Spirit meant to me. I kissed the top of Millie's head and stood back up.
"It's okay," I said with a smile. "You know why?" She shook her head. "Because I'm going to see her again."
"I really am sorry, Willow," her mother said while Millie got in the car. "What happened?"
I swallowed thickly. "Broken leg."
"What cemetery is she in?" she asked. "We'll visit."
I pointed to the tree with the yellow ribbon. "She's right there," I whispered, crying some more. "I think my dad paid extra but I don't know. He won't talk about it."
"Who's the new guy?" she asked, nodding at Nathaniel who was watching my dad instruct how to remove a saddle.
"His name is Nathaniel," I answered, resting my hands on my hips. "My dad... hired him and is actually letting him work, believe it or not."
"Well it's about time!" she said and I laughed. "We'll see you in two days."
"Take care of Millie," I said, seeing that the little girl was still crying.
I blew her a kiss and waved as they drove away. I sighed and turned to talk to my dad and Nathaniel but I bumped right into Matt. I stumbled back.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
He was glaring at me. "Where is Spirit? You and she are supposed to ride with me this weekend!"
"Spirit's gone, Matt," I whispered and he frowned.
"You sold her?"
"We had to put her down," I said, tucking my hair behind my ear and tried not to cry more.
"She broke her leg."
His jaw dropped and I was waiting for the sympathy. Instead, he glared at me again.
"How could you let her break her leg!?" he demanded and I looked at him, part in shock and part in fury. "I'm not going to win without her!"
"Are you fucking kidding me?" someone spat.
Nathaniel was standing behind Matt, a saddle blanket draped on his arm.
"Back off," Matt snapped. "This doesn't have anything to do with you." He turned back to me. "Spirit was the best horse on this damn ranch! Why weren't you paying better attention!?" I clenched my jaw and looked around. All the kids were gone. "God, now I'm never going to win!"
"Shut up, Matt," I snarled. "I will cut you from the classes."
"No you won't," he spat. "I'm the reason half of that wall is full!"
"That's bullshit!" I yelled, shoving him. "I've earned those awards! Now shut up!"
"You killed the best-"
I couldn't stand it and I punched him hard in the jaw. He stumbled back in shock, glaring at me. I was shaking and ready to strike again.
"All right," my father's calming voice came over and he put his arm around me. "Calm down, Willow."
"She hit me!" Matt yelled.
"Good or I would have," Nathaniel snapped.
Matt stared for a second then started laughing. "You're Nathaniel Banker! So this is where you disappeared to!" He laughed some more and I glared at him again. "Jesus, you've fallen far."
"You need to leave," my father said. "Class is over. If you keep speaking to my daughter and employee in such a way, I'll have to remove you from the class. And the competition," he added quietly and Matt's mouth clamped shut.
Matt needed this competition more than anything. It would be the turning point for him.
"Then who will you be riding with?" he snapped at me.
"I don't know yet," I snapped back. "I don't know if I even want to ride with you now."
His face went pale. "But-But I need you to."
I sighed angrily. "All right. I'll ride with your sorry ass but this is the last time! I'll find a horse and you'll deal with it! Now go!"
He turned on his heel and stormed to his truck. I sighed.
"Sorry I hit him, Dad," I muttered.
"Control your temper," he said. "Who are you riding with?"
"Probably Flame," I answered. "Sorry, Nathaniel," I added at the weird look he was giving us. "There's a show this weekend and... and Spirit was supposed to be my horse. After everything that happened, I had forgotten."
"What kind of things happen at this show?" he asked.
"Barrels, jumps, and then a kind of dress up bit," I explained as we put the rest of the saddles away. "You'll definitely have to come with us. I'll be too busy with the other parts."
"So it's like a rodeo?"
"Pretty much just without the bull riding and whatnot. It's all just horses."
"Why is it so important?"
I rolled my eyes. "Matt comes from a long line of horse champions," I explained, leading him to our award wall. "His parents actually helped get our ranch on its feet." I pointed at the picture of his parents with mine. "They pressured him when he was a kid which is probably why he's such an asshole now."
"From what I can see, all these awards have your name on them, not Matt's," he said.
I laughed. "Yeah, I'm pretty decent."
"That's an understatement," my father laughed. "Now, the competition is in five days so we might as well start working on the routine and have Matt come tomorrow."
I wrinkled my nose. "Oh all right."