Blackwater Creek - Part 1
Gripping handholds among the rocks, Erika scrambled to the crest of the ravine. She paused to catch her breath and looked carefully around her. Her ears strained for a telltale crackle in the underbrush, but she only heard the sigh of the wind. "Virag!" she called. "Come on, Virag! It's milking time!"
Where had that empty-headed cow wandered off to now? This was the third time that she'd broken out of the pasture. A week ago Hart Latham had caught her grazing calmly at the edge of his hay field. "If I catch that bohunk cow of yours in my fields again, I'll shoot her!" Latham had warned when Erika went to fetch her.
Papa told Erika and her brother, Sandor, to keep Virag off Latham's land and not to set foot there themselves. Virag, however, had her own ideas on the subject. She seemed convinced that the wildflowers in Hart Latham's fields were tastier than anything that the Nagys' pasture could offer her.
But Virag wasn't in the hay field this time. She must have strayed even farther. Erika didn't doubt that Hart Latham would shoot her on sight-if a cougar didn't get her first. Erika shoved those thoughts deep into a back corner of her mind. The Nagys couldn't afford the loss of their only cow, not even a troublemaker like Virag.
Pebbles rolled beneath her feet as Erika made her war along the ridge. Soon the ground sloped down to a grassy hollow, just the sort of place that Virag preferred. Virag would go to great lengths to find flowers to munch on. Her tastes had earned her the name Virag- "flower" in Hungarian. Searching and calling, Erika waded through the waist-high grass that rippled around her like water.
Hidden grasshoppers rasped out their springtime music. A qual rose up at her feet and hurtled away with a cry of alarm. But there was no sign of the spotted cow. Sighing, Erika started up the next rise, and when she reached the top, she gasped in dismay.
Before her stood Hart Latham's stable, a low-slung log building with a red-tiled roof. Beyond the stable loomed the ranch house itself. She hadn't realized that her search had brought her so deep into Latham's territory. She wondered who would be more furious-Latham or her father-if he knew that she was here. She should get away before anyone caught her! But Erika couldn't tear herself away from what she saw.
Four horses stood in the corral adjoining the stable. Three of them grazed quietly. The fourth, a little sorrel filly, craned her neck over the top of the fence. Erika couldn't resist. She had to get a closer look.
Ever since her family started renting a piece of Latham's land four months ago, Erika had seen horses come and go from his fields. Horse-trading was one of Latham's businesses, in addition to raising cattle and working gold claims on the Stanislaus river.
He and his ranch hands bought horses from other traders or caught them in the mountains and broke them to the saddle. With so many people flooding into the hills to look for gold, horses were always in demand.
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