The first rays of dawn were just making their appearance as Portino spurred his old gray mare northward along the main road. Sahnik lay comfortably curled behind Portino, snoring lightly. Despite the urgency of his mission, the young man couldn’t help feeling at ease. The early morning air was pleasantly cool. There was no sign of anyone on the road at that hour. He had the world to himself.
“This is the life, ain’t it, Sahnik?”
Sahnik gave a snort in response and adjusted his position on the horse’s rump. “Yes sir, it’s one adventure after another.” Portino 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, stopped in the middle of the road and looking in Portino’s direction as if he were expecting him. Portino let out a nervous breath and tried to maintain his carefree appearance as he continued to move forward. The man raised his hand when Portino had moved to within speaking distance.
“Where you off to, kid?” the man growled.
“Ahh,” stammered Portino, almost forgetting what he was supposed to say, “my, uhh, parents. They sent me a message. They’re sick.”
“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?”
Sahnik who was wide awake now let out a low growl as another horse and rider approached from behind. Portino 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. “Hey, 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?” Portino said, alarmed at the turn of events. Sahnik’s growl intensified.
“Nuthin’. We just had a nice little chat,” the large man sneered, “and they told us all about how proud they are of their little Portino. Funny, they never said nuthin’ 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 Portino is there by now?”
“Oh Wendy, it’s only been half a day,” said Haskin,” 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,” Arbuckle said. “To help pass the time along, how ‘bout we go out to the corral, and I’ll teach ya how to lasso a steer.”
“Really?” Wendy brightened as the rancher 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 Arbuckle to the front door.
“I suppose I would be wasting my breath if I told you to be careful,” Bobbin said rather sardonically.
“Yes,” replied Wendy, “it probably would.”
“Ah, youth,” Father Jon said with a chuckle. “I wish I had half the energy of that child. However, as I don’t,” he yawned, “I think I will take a nap instead.”
“Ropin’ is simple,” said Arbuckle 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 Radish appeared above the door. Wendy reached up and patted his broad neck.
“He might appreciate one of these,” said Arbuckle, producing an apple from his pocket and handing it to Wendy. She took it and began to lift it toward Horsey Radish’s mouth.
“Careful now,” the rancher warned. “Ya wanna have your hand flat when you give it to him. You don’t want Horsey nibblin’ off one of your fingers on accident.”
Wendy did as was instructed. Horsey Radish 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,” Arbuckle 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 Portino come back?”
“I dunno,” said Arbuckle warily, 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, each rider sporting a dark suit. In the next moment, the horsemen were thundering down the path leading to the house.
“It’s them!” Wendy screamed. “It’s Hoboken Mike’s men!”
“C’mon!” Arbuckle yelled as he pulled Wendy into the barn. Quickly, he grabbed for a saddle and bridle, threw open Horsey Radish’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 the rancher adjusted the reins and stirrups.
“Do you know how to get to Prince Carl’s palace from here?”
“I think so, but…”
“Hardyshire 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 Haskin and Bobbin? 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, Arbuckle hurriedly led Horsey Radish out of the barn, around the back, and toward 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 Hardyshire!”
They could hear the riders pulling up to the ranch house, dismounting, and then the sound of someone pounding on its door.
“Mr. Arbuckle…I’m afraid!”
Arbuckle 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 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 Haskin, Bobbin and Father Jon, 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,” Arbuckle 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!” the rancher returned the grin. “Now you take good care of Horsey Radish, ya hear?” With that, Arbuckle 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 Radish. 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 the horse to a stop, Arbuckle, 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 Radish. 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 Whyte Castle and safe with her uncle and the king and queen around to make the important decisions. Then Wendy thought of Haskin and Bobbin, Arbuckle and Father Jon, Portino and Sahnik. She thought of Potpie and the many people whose lives had been disrupted by the doings of Little Julius, Hoboken Mike and Long Jim Silverware. She thought of the kingdom and realized that if Little Julius 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 Radish,” said Wendy, gathering up the reins. “It’s just you and me, buddy. If something has happened to Portino, 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.