Thea and her dad are always on the move, from one small Cariboo town to another, trying to leave behind the pain of Thea's mom's death. They never stay long enough in one place for Thea to make friends, but when her dad gets work renovating a guest ranch on Gumboot Lake, she dares to hope that their wandering days are over. At the ranch she makes friends with Van, a local boy, and works hard to build the trust of an abused horse named Renegade. When Thea unearths the decades-old story of a four-year-old girl who disappeared from the ranch and was never seen again, she enlists Van to help her solve the mystery. When some disturbing facts come to light, she finally starts to come to terms with the losses in her own life.
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ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Text copyright © 2011 Becky Citra
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Citra, Becky Missing [electronic resource] / Becky Citra.
Type of computer file: Electronic monograph in PDF format.Issued also in print format. ISBN 978-1-55469-346-7
I. Title. PS8555.I87M58 2011A JC813'.54 C2010-907947-7
First published in the United States, 2011 Library of Congress Control Number: 2010941924
Summary: When Thea’s father gets a job at a guest ranch in the Cariboo, Thea earns the trust of an abused horse, solves an old mystery and makes a new friend.
Orca Book Publishers is dedicated to preserving the environment and has printed this book on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Cover design by Teresa Bubela Text design and typesetting by Jasmine Devonshire Cover photography by Getty Images
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
USTER, WA USA
www.orcabook.com Printed and bound in Canada.
14 13 12 11 • 4 3 2 1
For my brother John
It’s nearly the end of June, and I’m at the café, sitting in my usual booth at the back. I must look like the biggest loser. Nowhere to go after school but the café, where I work on homework. Not that there’s anyone to see me. No one that matters anyway.
“How’s the homework going?” says Dad. He’s wiping the table in the booth next to mine, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn ketchup blob. Usually he’s behind the grill, frying burgers and eggs, but the waitress has gone home early with a headache. Dad’s boss, Sid, took over the grill and sent Dad out here. The café is mostly empty; there’s just a woman and a small child eating ice cream at the window table.
Dad lingers to chat. “Want a Coke?”
“School go okay today?”
“Great,” I lie.
I don’t fool Dad. “Give it a chance,” he says. “You can’t expect to have a lot of friends instantly.”
I bend over my book so I don’t have to lie anymore. Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It takes time to make friends, and that’s what I don’t have. Sid’s regular cook will be back next week and then Dad will be officially out of work. Again. He’s been scanning the newspaper for jobs for weeks and leaving resumes around town, but there’s nothing here. We’ll be moving again.
And since when does Dad care anyway?
The page of math problems blurs over, and I blink hard. I’ve been like this all day. Fragile.
“Hey, Dusty, get in here,” calls Sid. Dad’s jaw tightens for a moment. I guess he isn’t having the best day either. He takes his time going back to the kitchen, and I concentrate on the next math problem.
Now I really feel like crying. I have a whole page of these stupid problems to do. I think longingly of the novel that I borrowed from the school library. The Horse Whisperer. I’ve seen the movie three times, but I’ve never read the book. For some reason, I didn’t know there was a book, and it was the best moment of my week when I spotted it in the trolley of books waiting to be shelved. It’s fat, and I figure I should really save it for school. It would fill up a lot of empty lunch hours.
I turn back to my math book. Who makes up these problems? What do they have to do with real life? An hour later I’ve done as much as I can, which is a little less than half. I’m already behind in all my subjects, and my worst nightmare is that I fail grade eight and have to do it all over again. I’ve always thought of myself as an average student, but this school is way harder than the last one.
When we lived in the Fraser Valley, I went to the same school from kindergarten to grade four. I liked it a lot, and I had three best friends. After all the bad stuff happened, Dad didn’t want anything to do with our old life. We came north and started moving from small town to small town in the Cariboo. That’s when things got even worse. None of Dad’s jobs last, and I want to go back to our old life, but I know Dad never will. I still miss my friends, though they’ve probably forgotten all about me, and I miss the Valley.
The café is empty now, except for Sid, Dad and me. Dad slides onto the seat opposite me with a mug of coffee. His face looks gray. Sid gives him ten-minute breaks and if Dad takes even one gazillionth of a second longer, Sid starts griping about how the café isn’t made of money. It’s the end of the night, so it’s Dad’s last break. Then he’ll clean up the kitchen and we can go home.
The door opens and a man comes in. He’s a big man with a red face, wearing jeans and boots that look brand-new, and a cowboy hat that doesn’t fit his head quite right. Dad has his back to him and he doesn’t turn around. A customer at this time of night means the café will be late closing. Sid doesn’t ever turn down the chance to make some money.
But Sid wants to go home too—the air-conditioning is on the fritz and there are two half circles of sweat under his armpits. “Sorry, we’re closing,” he says.
The man smiles and says, “I’m not here for a meal. I’m just spreading the word around town that I’m looking to hire someone out at my ranch. You must get a lot of people in and out of here during the day. Know anyone who’s looking for work?”
Dad’s listening now, I can tell, even though he’s pretending to drink his coffee. As for me, I want to scream, “Yes! Over here!” I can’t believe this. Some guy just wanders in here with a job tucked in his pocket. I don’t even care what the job is. I’m sure Dad can do it. Maybe, just maybe, we can stay in one town for more than a few months.
Sid nods his head our way and says, “You might want to talk to Dusty.”
The man hesitates for a second and then approaches our table. He reaches out his hand and says in a loud voice, “Stan Tulworth. Everyone calls me Tully.”
Dad says, “Dusty Taylor.” He shakes hands and then adds, “And this is my daughter, Thea.”
“Thea. What a charming name. Short for Theadora?”
I nod, slightly embarrassed. Most people have never heard of the name Theadora. I’m hoping Tully will say more about the job. I’m trying to stay cool inside, but I can hear my heart thumping. I’m feeling so hopeful, but I should know better by now.
“Pleased to meet you both,” says Tully. “Can you give me a few minutes of your time?”
Dad shrugs and Tully, taking that for a yes, slides his bulk into the seat beside me. He spreads his hands on the table. He’s wearing a large silver ring with a chunky black stone. “I bought the Double R Ranch,” he says without any preamble.
“Is that so?” says Dad.
“So you’ve heard of the place?” Tully asks.
Dad shakes his head. “Sorry. We’re fairly new in town ourselves.”
Tully exhales loudly. “It’s a big spread up on Gumboot Lake, about twenty kilometers out of town. A guest ranch. There’s ten cabins along the lakeshore and a lodge. Last owner got rid of the horses and closed it up about three years ago. Put a caretaker in there while he kept it on the market.” Tully beams. “Then I bought it. In April.”
Dad takes a sip of his coffee.
“Thing is,” says Tully, “I’m planning to bring the guests back and breed quarter horses as well. Highquality horses.”
“You run a ranch before?” says Dad.
“No,” says Tully. “But I like a challenge.”
“Ah,” says Dad.
“The horses will have to wait until next summer,” says Tully. “This year I’m focusing on fixing the place up. Most of the cabins are pretty run-down. I’m looking for someone with some carpentry skills. I want to gut at least three of the cabins and fix them up real nice.”
I don’t tend to think of Dad and me as lucky. But this is our lucky night. Dad is really good at building stuff, and he likes it way better than cooking hamburgers. My breath comes out in a whoosh. “Dad built a whole house once,” I say. It’s true. It took eight months and it was the longest I had stayed in one school since I was nine.
“Is that so?” says Tully.
But Dad says, “I don’t know.”
I know right away what he’s thinking. It’s the talk about horses. Ever since Mom’s accident four years ago, Dad can’t even stand to think about horses. I don’t get how Dad can wipe out a whole part of our lives, but he has. He changes the subject if I even mention horses. A lump fills my throat.
Tully is waiting and Dad says, “I don’t know,” again.
Tully takes a wallet out of his back pocket, opens it and slides out a business card. He lays it on the table. “Here’s my card. I’ll be around the ranch all next weekend. Come on out and we can talk.”
Tully stands up, shakes hands with Dad again, and then he’s gone. Tully doesn’t know Dad from a hole in the wall, but he has more or less just offered him a job. I’m trying to figure out what this means. If I were religious, maybe I’d think Tully was some kind of guardian angel. But I’m not, so I don’t know what to think.
Dad goes back into the kitchen and leaves the card lying on the table, right where Tully dropped it. I study it for a minute. The words Double R Guest Ranch and Tully’s name, phone number and email address are printed in black letters above a photograph of a horse galloping across a green field.
The stupid lump fills my throat again. I pick up the card and slip it into the plastic sleeve inside my binder.
It’s Friday and I’ve been waiting all week for Dad to tell me if we’re going to see Tully about the job. Dad’s supposed to work on Saturday and Sunday (his last two days of work), but just until five. I figure there’ll be plenty of time to drive out to the ranch before it gets dark.
I’m in the school library, reading The Horse Whisperer. I can’t put it down—it’s that great—and for the first time since I came to this school I wish the lunch hours were longer than forty-five minutes.
I’m sitting in the back corner of the library, far away from the row of windows that faces out into the hallway. I don’t want people to see me and think that I don’t have anyone to hang out with. I’ve been going to this school for two months now, and lunch hours are definitely the hardest.
I can fake it during class time. Open my book and recopy notes or work on homework. Anything to look busy. But at lunchtime everyone spills into the hallways. Lots of kids head downtown for junk food. I wish I had someone to go with. But not one person ever speaks to me. Not one. It’s like I’m invisible or something. Or maybe someone stuck one of those paper signs—Kick Me or Contagious or No Trespassing—on my back on the first day for a joke and I didn’t know it.
I’m pretty good at observing other people, and within a few weeks of being at this school I had the groups figured out. It’s not like it’s a very big school. You start to recognize faces. There’s the popular group of course, and I’ve identified most of the kids in that. They’re the noisiest in the hallway. Confident. Happy. Then there are the kids who stand outside the school grounds every lunch hour, smoking. And of course, the jocks, who make all the school teams. And finally there are kids just banding together for survival. It’s pretty much the same as my last school. Same groups, different faces.
Well, that’s not exactly true. This school has a group I’ve never encountered before. I walked past them the other day just before school started. About a dozen kids were standing in a circle holding hands. I tried not to stare, but I did catch the eye of one boy. He smiled at me and I looked away. But I was eaten up by curiosity. What were they doing? Then a bunch of the smokers walked by, and one of them yelled out something like, “Hey, God, I’ve been saaaaaved,” and then I got it. They’re some kind of religious group.
The bell rings and I close my book with a sigh. English, a double block of science, and then freedom.
Dad’s truck won’t start, and I panic, thinking that everything is going to be wrecked after all. I had finally persuaded Dad to at least talk to Tully. Dad hung up his apron for the last time today at exactly five o’clock, and we went to one of the nicest restaurants in town for a celebration dinner. I worried that we were spending too much money (Dad doesn’t have the job yet), but Dad was in a good mood and told me to order whatever I wanted. I don’t think I really realized until then how much he had hated working for Sid. I figured this splurge of a dinner was a promising sign and decided to enjoy my lasagna and doublefudge-brownie sundae without feeling guilty.
And now the stupid truck won’t start and it’s almost seven o’clock. Dad’s bent over the open hood, fiddling with something. Worry eats at me like ants on a saucer of jam. Tully must have decided by now that we aren’t coming. What if he gives the job to someone else? How many other guys in town did he talk to? What if, right at this very minute, some other guy with a stupid degree in carpentry is driving up the road to the Double R Ranch?
“Jump in the truck and try starting it again, Thea,” says Dad. I climb in and turn the key. I can actually feel sweat trickle down my back. The engine roars to life. Dad slams the hood down, and I slide over to my side of the seat as he scrambles in.
We don’t talk on the way to the ranch. Dad’s tired and I’m too anxious about what’s going to happen. About ten kilometers out of town we turn onto a gravel road. Our truck has no suspension left, so it feels like we’re bouncing from pothole to pothole. I stare out the side window, watching trees and fields and the occasional house slide by. In one field, three horses are cantering up a slope, and I keep them in sight as long as I can.
Fifteen minutes later we turn under a big log archway that has the words Double R Guest Ranch burned into the wood. I see the lake first, a smooth plate of emerald green water, and then a huge log house half hidden in a grove of pine trees.
Dad pulls up near the house and stops the truck. Tully is standing on the porch of the house as if he’s been waiting for us. He’s still wearing his new jeans and boots, but he’s taken off the cowboy hat and you can see a tan line across his forehead. He has curly gray hair that springs all over the place.
Three dogs race in front of him, barking, as he strides over to the truck. He is all smiles while we climb out. “You made it,” he says. “You’ll have to say hello to my boys first, or they won’t give you any peace.”
He makes the introductions. The long-legged black dog with a laughing mouth is Max, the brown and white springer spaniel is Bob and the little gray terrier is Tinker. Max and Tinker crowd around our legs, tails wagging, and Bob hangs back a little. “Hush now, that’s enough barking,” says Tully. “They’re all strays from the SPCA, and they get along splendidly. Bob is a little shy, but he’ll come around.”
I’ve fallen in love with them already, but I think Bob is my favorite. He has long floppy ears, and eyes like melted chocolate. I reach out my hand and he approaches cautiously and sniffs my fingers.
“I’ll give you a tour and then we’ll go inside and talk,” says Tully.
He takes us for a walk along a dirt road that follows the shore of the lake. The dogs come with us, galloping into the bushes and chasing after scents. The road winds through pine trees, and the ground is covered by a soft blanket of dusty needles. Scattered along the road on the lakeside are log cabins, all different sizes, each one tucked into the trees and with its own narrow wooden dock. Tully points out which cabins are in pretty good shape and which ones he wants to renovate. I’m not really listening. A breeze wafts off the water; for the first time today I feel cool.
At one of the larger cabins we walk out onto the dock and look at the glassy lake. The sun is hovering over the top of the hill on the opposite shore, and the water has turned from emerald green to a pale copper. It’s so beautiful it makes me catch my breath.
“Gumboot Lake is two kilometers long and half a kilometer wide,” says Tully. “There are a few summer places at the other end and a couple of year-round homes. This end of the lake stays pretty quiet.”
The road becomes narrower, with bushes crowding both sides. Tully says there isn’t much more to see, just one cabin that’s so far gone it’s not worth fixing up. We head back. I trail a little behind, trying to imagine what this place must have been like when it was full of guests and there were horses.
Ahead of me, Tully is doing a lot of talking, and Dad nods his head a few times. When we get back near the lodge, Tully points out a barn and corrals and a few other outbuildings. The barn is made of logs too and has a tin roof. Behind it a huge field slopes up toward a ridge of forest.
While we’re standing there, the sun disappears behind the hill. The lake loses its magic. The water is black and the opposite shore is a dark smudge. I shiver slightly.
“Coffee time,” says Tully. “Come on inside.”
We walk up four steps onto a wide porch that wraps around the whole building. Wooden lawn chairs with faded striped cushions are scattered along it, facing the lake. It looks like an inviting place to curl up with a book.
I come to a dead stop when we go through the door. We’re in a huge open room with wood floors and bright rugs, an enormous stone fireplace and lots of overstuffed leather armchairs and couches. The kitchen is at one end, with a big island and a mass of gleaming copper pans hanging from a round rack suspended from the high ceiling. There’s one gigantic table that would seat twenty people. A balcony runs all around the room and I figure there must be lots of rooms upstairs.
The room is amazing, but that’s not what stops me in my tracks. It’s the framed photographs on every wall. I’m not lying when I say there must be hundreds.
“Impressive,” says Dad behind me. “Who’s the photographer?”
“I am,” says Tully, and I can hear the pride in his voice. “Take a look, if you like.”
Tully sets out a pot of coffee, mugs, hot chocolate for me and a plate of cookies on one end of the long table. Dad and I wander about the room. The photographs are beautiful. Buildings, people, animals and scenery. The colors are rich and vibrant. Some of the places I recognize, like the Great Pyramids in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower. But I have no idea where most of the photographs were taken.
“You’ve traveled a lot,” says Dad.
“All around the world,” says Tully.
“Even to Africa,” I say. I’m standing in front of a wall of photographs of African animals: cheetahs, elephants, leopards and giraffes, and some that I can’t identify. The animals are so clear that they look like they could step right out of their frames. I can see the individual hairs in a lion’s mane.
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