With much thanks from the McDougals (and much cleaning up of the kitchen by an indignant Wendy), the band of travelers set out after breakfast. They had decided to continue following the road as it wound its way through the countryside and down to the seaside and Port Plees-Comagin. As the day wore on, the farm fields gradually gave way to open pasture land. Various herds of livestock roamed about the rolling, grassy plains with an occasional tree to punctuate the landscape.
“How far is the port from here?” Wendy asked, not for the first time.
“About a mile closer then when you last asked,” Portino said, a little peevishly. It was growing to be a really warm and humid day and tempers were short.
“I wasn’t asking you!” Wendy snapped back.
“Then who were you asking? Sahnik?” The dog looked up at the sound of his name, his tail wagging and his tongue lolling.
“That’s enough, you two,” Haskin spoke up. “Squabbling is not making this trip any easier.”
“As we told you before, Wendy,” added Bobbin. “We should make it to the port by nightfall.”
However, by the time the travelers had finished their mid-day meal kindly provided by the McDougals, dark clouds had begun to roll in from the west, and thoughts now turned to finding shelter from the coming storm. Not having passed a home, barn or even a shed in the last several miles, the group decided to forge ahead and hope for the best. As it turned out, they didn’t have far to travel. After reaching the top of a rise, the travelers spotted an open gate to the right of the road with a large sign hanging over it.
“The A&W Ranch,” read Haskin as they all approached the gate. The wind had started to pick up, causing the sign to swing and creak with an eerie, lonesome sound.
“I hope someone is home,” said Wendy, looking up at the ever-darkening sky. Beyond the open gate, the land sloped down into a shallow valley revealing a panoramic view of the sprawling ranch. A herd of cattle grazed in a paddock near a large barn.
“As we have no other options,” replied Bobbin, “I propose that we go down and find out.” Just then, the rhythmic sound of horse’s hooves could be heard faintly over the gusting wind. From up the road they had just traveled appeared a horse and rider. He was lean and muscular, his brown hair shaggy and powdered with trail dust. The man riding him looked similar with the exception of the large ten-gallon hat perched atop his head.
“Howdy!” said the man as he reined in, then quickly grabbed at his hat as the wind attempted to pluck it off his head. “How ‘bout this weather, huh? There’s quite a storm headin’ this way.” As if to emphasize his last statement, a low growl of thunder echoed across the open landscape.
“Excuse me sir,” said Haskin, trying to speak over the wind, “could you tell us who lives at this ranch?”
“You’re lookin’ at him,” said the man. “The name’s Arbuckle. I own the A&W.”
“Would you be able to provide us with some shelter until the storm passes?”
“Why sure,” grinned the rancher as he dismounted his horse. “Never let it be said that Arbuckle turned away a passel of damsels in distress.”
“Wait, what?” Portino spoke up indignantly.
“All right, a passel of damsels and a little boy,” Arburkle corrected airily. Portino frowned, unsure if he was offended more by being considered a damsel in distress or a little boy. The rancher turned his attention to Wendy. “So young lady, how would you like a ride back to the ranch?” With a squeal of delight, Wendy, with the help of Arbuckle, scrambled onto the horse’s back. The group then passed through the gate and down the dirt trail leading to the main house and barn.
“What’s your horse’s name?” asked Wendy as she bobbed along rhythmically to her mount’s movements.
“This here is Horsey Radish,” said Arbuckle, patting the horse’s neck fondly.
“Horsey Radish? What…” Wendy began.
“Wendy…” Haskin called out, pointing a warning finger at the redhead, “don’t start.”
“What a nice name,” Wendy amended quickly.
The storm that finally broke after the travelers reached the ranch house was the worst in living memory. Gale-force winds drove the rain sideways, beating on the windows so hard that Wendy was sure that they would shatter. The steady roar of the wind and rain was punctuated by loud claps of thunder that seemed to grow louder and more menacing as time went on. The forks of lightning that occasionally split the sky seemed to concentrate its fury upon the ranch.
In the dim candlelight of the large room, Wendy huddled next to Haskin and Bobbin. She had never been bothered by storms before. However, weathering storms within the confines of the Whyte Castle was a far different experience from this. Another blast of thunder shook the house. Wendy covered her ears and whimpered. Sahnik howled in fear as Portino tried to comfort his friend. Arbuckle, needing to bring his cattle from the paddock into the barn had remained outside with Horsey Radish, trying to round up the increasingly agitated beasts.
“The poor man,” said Bobbin after the latest explosion of thunder. “I wonder how much longer he’ll be?” Suddenly there was a loud crash outside, followed by a steady rumbling.
“My goodness, was that thunder?” exclaimed Haskin, getting to her feet. “It sounded like it came right from the yard.”
“That was no thunder,” said Portino, peering out of one of the windows. “It’s the cattle, they’re loose!” Haskin, Bobbin and Wendy rushed to the windows just in time to see the last of the panicky bellowing herd as it stampeded past the ranch house and out into the open pasture. Portino ran to the door and flung it open, instantly getting soaked by the wind-driven rain.
“What are you doing?” Haskin yelled.
“Mr. Arbuckle needs help,” replied Portino.
“And what do you think you’re going to do?”
“I’m not sure. C’mon, Sahnik!” With that, the boy and the dog forced their way outside. Portino immediately spotted Arbuckle as the rancher rode pell-mell up towards the house.
“That last big thunder spooked them!” Arbuckle shouted, skidding Horsey Radish to a stop. “They rushed the fence and smashed it to pieces!”
“Can we help?” Portino asked.
“Can you ride, boy?”
“I know which end of a horse is which.”
“I got another horse in the barn. Saddle ‘er up and head for the cattle.”
Arbuckle touched spurs to Horsey Radish and the two galloped off. Portino ran for the barn with Sahnik in toe. Portino soon burst out of the barn on an old gray mare, with Sahnik sitting up front, desperately digging his front claws into the saddle horn. Riding against the wind, the rain stabbed at Portino’s face and hands, hampering his vision, but he determinedly rode on. He saw Arbuckle up ahead riding to the front of the stampede trying to get the cattle to change direction before they got to the road. He was slowly making progress, and it appeared the herd’s collective panic was on the wane when a bolt of lightning struck a large oak tree a mile away, sending sparks and charred wood spinning through the air. Despite the distance of the strike, Portino could feel the hair on his head rising. Sahnik gave a startled yelp, the mare gave her head a violent shake, and the cattle went wild and started running in different directions.
“What do we do?” Portino yelled to Arbuckle.
“We gotta go after ‘em—get them all back together, and we need to hurry! They could injure themselves panickin’ like this.” Arbuckle turned and galloped toward the road to head off the cattle heading that direction. Portino turned in the other direction in order to chase down the cattle running toward the ranch house. However, before he could spur on the mare, Sahnik leapt from the saddle, landing on the soggy ground with a soft splut.
“What are you doing?” Portino shouted, but the little dog was off. For such a short-legged creature, Sahnik possessed remarkable speed. Portino turned to pursue him until he realized what his friend was doing. Sahnik had caught up to one of the steers and was nipping at one of its front legs. Irritated by this, the steer attempted to get clear of the dog. Gradually, the beast’s direction turned away from the ranch and back into the open field. In its annoyance, the steer was also beginning to lose its fear. As it started to slow down to a trot, Sahnik dashed off in search of more cattle. Amazed, Portino rode in Sahnik’s wake, prodding first one calmed steer, then another, into a semblance of a herd. Other cattle, chased down by Arbuckle, started drifting in as well. By the time the storm had finally blown itself out, every steer was accounted for and the exhausted group of men and animals made their way to the barn.
As they returned to the ranch house, Portino, Sahnik and Arbuckle were met with cheers from Wendy, Haskin and Bobbin.
“Son,” said the rancher, putting a damp arm around Portino. “You and that dog of yours saved my hide out there. I never coulda done this alone. You have my deepest gratitude.”
Portino, his floppy hat soaked and drooping nearly over his eyes, grinned. Sahnik, mud-spattered and panting, gave a happy yip. Arbuckle bent down to scratch behind the dog’s ears. “What this little fella did was amazing.” The rancher straightened up and sighed. “I sure could use a dog like this, and,” he glanced at Portino, “a hired hand who knows his way around cattle. How ‘bout it, Portino?”
“Me?” Portino was stunned. “I…uh, well…that’s a nice offer, Mr. Arbuckle, but I…”
“What is it, son?”
“It’s just that I sorta had my heart set on the learnin’ the restaurant business.”
“Well shoot son, that ain’t no problem! I wasn’t always a rancher. I had my own restaurant chain for years before I passed the business onto my sons. I’ll teach ya everything ya need to know.”
Portino’s face brightened.
“In that case, you got yourself a ranch hand!” He stuck out his hand and Arbuckle shook it heartily.
“I think congratulations are in order!” Haskin beamed, giving Portino a hug. Bobbin followed suit; only Wendy hung back.
“You’re…. you’re not coming with us?” The girl looked thoroughly dejected.
“What about the adventures you wanted to have?” Portino walked over to Wendy and knelt in front of her.
“Wendy, I’ve been on one big adventure since I met you, and I’m sure that there are more adventures in store for me while you’re still running loose in the kingdom.”
The girl sniffed and smiled weakly. Sahnik trotted up and Wendy crouched down to pet him. Affectionately, the dog started licking her arms. Wendy giggled.
“I’m going to miss you guys.”
With that, she wrapped her arms around Portino in a tight hug.