"Why don't you move over
a little so that setting sun hits your hair, Mace? You look so pretty when it sparkles like that."
Mama grabbed my chin, cranking in a westward direction like I was a baby doll with a pop-off head. I'd been savoring the moment, gazing upon a still pristine stretch of our once vast central Florida prairie.
"Quit," I snapped at her, jerking my chin away. Val, the horse I'd borrowed for the annual Florida Cracker Trail Ride, shifted beneath me and shook her own head. Equine empathy, maybe. Val must have had a mother who drove her crazy, too.
"Well, you don't need to get snippy." Mama edged her horse a little closer and whispered. "I was just trying to present you in your most flattering light, darlin'." She nodded significantly toward a weekend cowboy astride a big Palomino, heading into the evening camp.
"Oh, for God's sake, Mama!" I whispered back. "Can't we spend any time at all together without you trying to find me a man?"
I glanced at the cowboy. He was bald, twenty years older than me, and about a hundred pounds overweight. The gelding he was riding was plenty big. Still, the horse looked relieved the ride was stopping for the day so he could get a break.
Turning Val away from the long line of riders, I trotted toward a remote corner of ranch land I'd already chosen for our campsite. Mama spurred her horse to catch up, her mouth hooked downward in a pout.
"I don't know why you've got us way out here in Siberia, Mace. There's not a soul nearby for me to talk to."
"I like the quiet, Mama. And you can socialize up a storm at dinner. Besides, I thought this trip was all about the two of us 'bonding.' "
With Mama's impending marriage just a few months away, it had been her idea to saddle up and hit the week-long, camping and riding trip along the Cracker Trail. She drove me crazy about it until I finally caved in.
"We need us some bonding time, Mace," she'd said. "We're the last two single gals in the family." I think there was even a tear in her eye.
I got all nostalgic about Florida's early cattle-driving days, and how we'd traced the historic trail as a family when Daddy was alive. Insanely, I went along with Mama's plan. My sisters, Marty and Maddie, couldn't take a whole week off work. But they were going to drive the hour and a half from Himmarshee to the Atlantic coast. They'd meet us for the big parade in Fort Pierce, the end-point for the hundred or so riders who make the cross-state trek.
If I made it that far without killing Mama, that is.
Combine her upcoming nuptials with the fact that my former flame moved back to Miami and out of my life and Mama's matchmaking compulsion had hit overdrive. We were only on Day Two of the six-day ride. And already she'd eyed every male she'd seen as my possible mate: from the pimply clerk at the mega-store, who bagged up our trail provisions, to the ride's middle-aged cowboy poet, even after two of his girlfriends got into a scuffle near the stage last night. By this point, I was praying for an off-season hurricane that might force us to cancel the rest of the trip. We'd just pulled up the horses to a tree line that marked our evening camp, when I suddenly felt Val's muscular body tense beneath me. Her ears went up. A moment later, I heard the sound myself.
Something was moving out there through the shadows of a dense oak hammock . . .