The first rays of dawn were just making their appearance as Portillo spurred the old gray mare northwards along the main road. Sonic lay comfortably curled behind Portillo, snoring lightly. Despite the urgency of his mission, the boy couldn’t help feeling relaxed. The early morning air was pleasantly cool. There was no sign of any other person on the road at that hour. He had the world to himself.
“This is the life, ain’t it, Sonic?” Sonic gave a snort in response and adjusted his position on the horse’s rump. “Yes sir, it’s one adventure after another.” Portillo began to whistle softly as the daylight continued to expand across the eastern sky. His reverie was interrupted when he saw a large man on a horse. The man was stopped in the middle of the road and looking in Portillo’s direction as if he were expecting him. Portillo let out a nervous breath and tried to maintain his carefree appearance as he continued to move forward. The man raised his hand when Portillo had moved to within speaking distance.
“Where you off to, kid?” The man growled.
“Ahh,” stammered Portillo, almost forgetting what he was supposed to say. “My, uhh, parents. They sent me a message. They’re sick.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, they are. Both of them, and they want me to come home right away.”
The man let out a humorless laugh.
“I think we can save you a trip. Ain’t that right, Crab Cakes?” Sonic who was wide awake now let out a low growl as another horse and rider approached from behind. Portillo turned to look at the strange sight of a grimy-looking pirate sitting awkwardly on his mount. Clearly this was his first time on a horse.
“Blast ye!” cried the pirate, trying adjust himself comfortably in the saddle. “I told ye, me name is pronounced “’Rab ‘Akes.” The “C’s” are silent!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” the large man said dismissively. “But his folks didn’t look too sick when we stopped in for a visit last night.”
The pirate laughed.
“Aye, but they sure looked scared witless to me!”
“What did you do to them?” Portillo said, alarmed at the turn of events. Sonic’s growl intensified.
“Nothin’. We just had a nice little chat,” the large man sneered. “And they told us all about how proud they are of their little Portillo. Funny, they never said nothin’ about sending you a message…”
“Ya wouldn’t be on another errand, would ya, boy?” Crab Cakes grinned, revealing a mouthful of gaps where a number of teeth had once resided.
“Do you think Portillo is there by now?”
“Oh Wendy, it’s only been half a day,” said Baskin.” And come away from the window, your food is getting cold.” Reluctantly, Wendy returned to the table where the others were eating.
“Tell ya what, Miss Spitfire,” Arby said. “To help pass the time along, how ‘bout we go out to the corral, and I teach ya how to lasso a steer.”
“Really?” Wendy brightened as Arby rose from his seat and put on his hat.
“Sure thing. We can head out now if ya like.” Wendy leapt from the table and followed Arby to the front door.
“I suppose I would be wasting my breath if I told you to be careful,” Robin said rather sardonically.
“Yes,” replied Wendy, “it probably would.”
“Ah, youth,” Papa John said with a chuckle. “I wish I had half the energy of that child. But, as I don’t,” he yawned, “I think I will take a nap instead.”
“Ropin’ is simple,” said Arby as he and Wendy made their way to the barn. “It’s all a matter of timin’.” They entered the dimly-lit barn and Wendy breathed in the heady fragrance of fresh hay, horses, and newly produced manure. A nicker from one of the stalls drew the pair over. The head of Horsey Sauce appeared above the door. Wendy reached up and patted his broad neck.
“He might appreciate one of these,” said Arby, producing an apple from his pocket and handing it to Wendy. She took it and began to lift it toward Horsey Sauce’s mouth.
“Careful now,” Arby warned. “Ya wanna have your hand flat when you give it to him. You don’t want Horsey nibbling off one of your fingers on accident.”
Wendy did as instructed. Horsey Sauce lowered his head and snuffled the apple for a moment before plucking it from Wendy’s hand and crunching on it contentedly. Wendy laughed and rubbed the horse’s nose.
“You just made a friend for life,” Arby said with a grin. “Horsey’s a push-over for apples. Now,” the rancher said looking around. “Let’s find us some rope.”
The sound of distant hoof beats put an end to the search.
“Who is that?” Wendy asked. “Did Portillo come back?”
“I dunno,” said Arby, striding out of the barn to get a better look with Wendy at his heels. From the main road, a number of horse and riders were paused the ranch’s gate entrance. In the next moment, the horsemen were thundering down the path leading to the house.
“It’s them!” Wendy screamed. “It’s Jersey Mike’s men!”
“C’mon!” Arby yelled as he pulled Wendy into the barn. Quickly, he grabbed for a saddle and bridle, threw open Horsey Sauce’s stall door and threw them on. He then snatched up Wendy and placed her on the horse.
“What are you doing?” Wendy cried as Arby adjusted the reins and stirrups.
“Do you know how to get to Prince Carl’s palace from here?”
“I think so, but…”
“Hardeeshire is due east from here. Ya can’t miss it. Once ya get there, you’ll be able to ask for directions.”
“But I can’t…”
“Wendy, ya gotta go! Prince Carl needs to know what’s happenin’!”
“But what about Baskin and Robin? I can’t leave them!”
“There ain’t no choice! I’ll watch out for ‘em, but ya need to go now!”
Grabbing the bridle, Arby hurriedly led Horsey Sauce out of the barn, around the back, and towards a nearby grove of trees.
“Ride west through the trees until you’re out of sight of the ranch. When the coast is clear, turn and head for the main road, then ride like fury, and don’t stop till ya get to Hardeeshire!”
They could hear the riders pulling up to the ranch house, dismounting, and then the sound of someone pounding on its door.
“Arby…I’m afraid!” Arby paused and gently took her hand.
“I know darlin’, but we need a hero real bad right now, and I think you’re the girl for the job!”
Now they heard the door bang open and the muffled shouts of the house’s occupants.
“How can I be a hero?” Wendy whimpered. “Heroes don’t get scared!”
“Course they get scared! Do ya know what makes a person a hero?”
“No,” Wendy sniffled.
“A hero is someone who looks their fear right in the face, and spits!”
The sounds of shouts and scuffling had now moved out into the yard. Wendy could hear the struggling of Baskin, Robin, and Papa John, as well as the men who yelled at them.
“We know you guys have a girl with you,” said one. “Where is she?”
Another one of the men shouted: “Check the barn!”
“We’re outta time, hon,” Arby said, turning the horse’s head in the direction of the trees. “You remember what I said about fear.”
“Look it right in the face, and spit,” Wendy said with a small grin.
“Atta girl!” Arby returned the grin. “Now you take good care of Horsey Sauce, ya hear?” With that, Arby slapped the horse’s rump and Wendy’s mount shot forward into the wood.
It took all of Wendy’s strength just to stay on Horsey Sauce. She bounced uncomfortably out of sync with the horse for a while until she was finally able to match the rhythm of his movements. Meanwhile, overgrown shrubs and low-hanging tree branches whipped and plucked at her as she did her best to dodge the threatening foliage. When Wendy was finally able to bring Horsey Sauce to a stop, Arby, the barn, and the ranch were far out of sight and hearing range. Now, Wendy wondered, how to find the main road. In the confusion, she had completely lost her sense of direction.
“Do you know where we are?” Wendy leaned forward to ask Horsey Sauce. As if in response, the horse whinnied and gave his head a shake. Wendy heaved a sigh. A couple of days ago, she was chomping at the bit for adventure, but this was more than she had bargained for. She wished she was back home at the White Castle and safe with her uncle and the King and Queen around to make the important decisions. Then Wendy thought of Baskin and Robin, Arby and Papa John, Portillo and Sonic. She thought of Popeye and the many people whose lives had been disrupted by the doings of Little Caesar, Jersey Mike, and Long John Silver. She thought of the kingdom and realized that if Little Caesar got his way, Dryvthru would only have one place to go for pizza. And if a kingdom didn’t provide its citizens with a choice in pizza, Wendy determined, it was a kingdom not worth living in.
“All right, Horsey Sauce,” said Wendy, gathering up the reins. “It’s just you and me, buddy. If something has happened to Portillo, then it’s up to us to save Dryvthru!” Before she urged her mount onward, she glanced back at the way she had come, where the bad men were, where her fear was. She spat.