Katie slouched on the peeling wood steps that led to the back porch. With elbows firmly propped up on knees, she dropped her chin into her hands. Everyone else was inside talking in hushed tones, eating rolled up meat and dried crackers with white goo on them.
Her stomach growled. The “finger sandwiches,” which didn’t look like fingers at all, were real small and not one of them had peanut butter and jelly in them. She could’ve complained to Pa. He would’ve found her something good to eat, but she was still mad at him.
Pa had made her wear the yellow dress that had ruffles around the neck, the one that choked and itched. She hated that dress. It made her look like a baby and at eight years old, she was no baby.
How was Cole supposed to know that she was a big girl if Pa dressed her all stupid like? But Katie had seen the look on her father’s face, and learned there was no arguing when his mouth got all tight and small like that.
Still, she’d won one battle. She raised one foot to peek at the scuffed leather boot. Yep, her most favorite shoes in the whole world—her pink boots. She’d waited ’til the last minute so there’d been no time for Pa to send her back to change or else they’d miss the you-la-gee, whatever that was. So she wore her pink cowgirl boots, and had flashed her prettiest smile every time one of the ’dults told her that she sure did look cute.
In the end, wearing them wasn’t worth the trouble she’d get later, cuz the one person who shoulda noticed, didn’t. Cole.
Katie hugged herself and rocked slightly, her stomach still fluttery from when Pa had nudged her to walk to the front of the church where Cole, his sister, Nikki, and his ma had stood. Katie’s stomach did that a lot when she saw Cole. His dark hair had grown shaggy, and she loved how it fell to one side. She loved his blue eyes that always made her think of the Texas sky and how his crooked smile made her smile. He was eight years older, almost grown, but he’d never treated her like a baby. Which was cool, because sometimes even Pa did that.
Most of the time when she saw him, she’d throw herself into his arms, and he’d always give her a hug and twirl her ’round and ’round ’til Pa would tell them to settle down. But today was different. Today, she felt terrible. Cole, her best friend, her cowboy, was sad.
Katie had walked up to Cole’s mom after the funeral, not sure what to do. Mrs. Logan had been a mess. Her hair wasn’t smoothed back into a tight bun like usual, but fuzzy. She had shivered inside her black sweater, which was odd since Katie’s dumb dress was already stuck to her. There was one second when Katie didn’t want to hug Mrs. Logan, afraid she’d knock her over. Then Cole’s mom turned her lips into a half smile and Katie threw her arms around her, burying her nose in the smell of fabric softener and maple syrup.
“Ah Katie, my breath of fresh air,” she said, patting Katie’s head. “You need to help Cole. Be there for him.”
Katie had nodded. But when she’d hugged Cole with all her strength, he just stood there, not saying one word. Even when she mumbled “sorry” like everyone else had, he hadn’t looked at her. Nope, just stared straight ahead like he was picturing himself somewhere else and not at the church at all.
Nikki as usual, had never looked at her. Katie shrugged. Nikki was older, almost ten, and she didn’t play with babies. At least that was what Nikki had told Katie the last time she’d gone over looking for Cole. That was fine with Katie. Nikki was boring anyway. All she cared about was that beat-up, old pool table the Logans had out back. She didn’t care about horses. Not like Katie did.
Katie heaved her shoulders and slumped even further. She peeled a blue paint chip off the worn step and held it up against the bright sky. Nope. Not quite. Her Pa always told her there was nothing quite as blue and quite as wide as the Texas sky. And Pa was always right. There wasn’t a color blue she’d seen that matched the best sky in the whole world. Well, except the blue of Cole’s eyes, and she wasn’t going tell anyone that.
Katie flicked the paint chip to the ground and looked out past the giant oak tree. There in the distance was a two-rail wooden fence Cole’s dad had just put up. In the holding area were the new horses that arrived only a few weeks ago. One of the horses, Cole told her, was pregnant and soon the first foal would be born to the Logans’ Horse Ranch.
She’d heard one of the ’dults, Mike Pitt, talking about how the horses had killed Cole’s dad. He’d been real upset and had gone on about how Cole’s dad shoulda known better. And about how the horses had cost lots of money and the stress on Cole’s dad’s heart was too much. Katie didn’t understand and wanted to ask Mr. Mike how the horses could be to blame when Cole’s dad died in his bed. But Katie couldn’t because for some reason Pa didn’t like her talking to him.
But Mr. Mike was wrong. It couldn’t have been the horses. Seemed to her it was the sleepin’ that had killed Cole’s dad. He went to sleep and plumb forgot how to wake up. That’s why from now on when she went to sleep she’d keep the bathroom light on, so she’d remember how to get up in the mornings.
One of the ponies neighed in greeting as Cole and her Pa went toward the fence. Her Pa had his arm around Cole’s shoulder and was walking real slow. Funny, Cole always seemed so big to her, but next to Pa he didn’t. Maybe cuz of the way his shoulders slumped and how his head hung down like he wanted to study the design on his black boots.
Pa lifted his hat and smoothed his hair. He had a habit of fiddling with his hat when a horse was having a hard time birthing a foal or when Katie got a note home from her teacher. So Katie sat real still and quiet so she could figure out what bothered Pa because next to him, Cole was her favorite person in the world.
Pa focused hard on Cole. His head bent low to Cole’s dark one. Cole nodded, swiped at his eyes, and nodded again. Then Pa did something she’d never seen him do. Well, to anyone else except her. He hugged Cole. And not just a one-arm hug, but a real, both-arms-wrapped-around-and-squeezing, making-you-feel-all-safe-and-better kinda hug. And for one heartbeat, jealousy rolled through her. But it was gone just as quick because this was Cole who Pa hugged. And if Pa was going to hug anyone else, then it might as well be Cole because she knew a secret.
It was so secret she hadn’t even told Pa. So secret she’d only whisper it at night and then only into her pillow. She was gonna marry Cole one day.