Chapter OneWe're finally here!" Skye yelled, jumping out of the truck cab. Her dark brown eyes darted back and forth at the surroundings as fast as her heart was pounding. She ran both hands through her hair, nervously pushing back the long dark strands. "Morgan, I can't believe it! Camp Tioga, all summer long!"
Mr. and Mrs. Chambers quickly slipped out of the truck and set up Morgan in her Jazzy wheelchair on a cement walkway. "My nerves are frazzled, and we just got here!" Morgan giggled. "Do you think not being able to sleep for a week has anything to do with it?"
"You girls are in for the treat of your life," Mr. Chambers said. He squared his cowboy hat on his brown hair and smoothed his mustache.
"You certainly are!" Mrs. Chambers smiled all the way to her blue eyes. "We're very proud of our foster girls volunteering to be junior counselors and riding instructors. Since you both have experience with horses and with special-needs children, you're just the teen workers this Christian camp was looking for."
"It's so cool that our church decided to send monthly support to this place," Morgan said. Her long, kinky red hair framed a freckled face upturned to the hot June sun. "After Mr. Wheaten spoke to the youth group in Sunday school last January, Pastor Newman really got sold on this place. Thanks to those two, we're here!"
Skye's attention shifted to the barn and riding corral straight ahead. "I just can't believe that serving the Lord could ever be like this. I mean, like, Morgan and me together in the same bunkhouse! And on top of that, Champ and Blaze could come too." She glanced at the trailer hooked to the back of their truck.
Neigh-h-h! At the mention of his name, the sorrel quarter horse whinnied and pawed the trailer floor. Blaze nickered.
"Mr. Wheaten should be somewhere close by," Mr. Chambers said. "He told us to be here by four o'clock."
"Did I hear my name?" a man's voice called from inside the barn. A large door slid open, and a giant of a man walked out with a belly that looked like he had swallowed a watermelon-whole. From the top of his cowboy hat to the bottoms of his boots, he was covered in hay dust. He banged his black Stetson on his jeans, wiped his sweating face on his sleeve, and squared the hat on his silver crew cut. "Whew! Sure is a hot one today," he said. "Stackin' hay in heat like this is worse than tryin' to catch a greased pig in a tub o' sticky oatmeal. It's almost as hot here as it was in Texas. How are you folks doin' today?" He extended his right hand to Mr. Chambers.
"We're fine," Mr. Chambers said with a warm handshake.
"Jumpin' out of our skin would be a better way to describe Morgan and me," Skye said. "We can't wait to start our jobs." And see Chad, she mused.
"Morgan Hendricks and Skye Nicholson, reporting for duty, sir!" Morgan said, saluting. She shook Mr. Wheaten's hand and then pivoted her chair toward a large building to her right. "I am so into cooking these days. I want to get my hands on that neat equipment in your mess hall where I'm going to spend three days each week. At home I even practiced making brown bread and black-eyed peas."
"Yeah," Skye said, opening her mouth and pointing at her tongue. "Enough to gag a maggot."
"Skye-" Mrs. Chambers shook her head.
"Sorry," Skye said.
"Little lady," Mr. Wheaten said, "you must've been using Charleston's Summer Cookbook or somethin' left over from the Civil War! This is Camp Tioga, not Camp Atlanta. Pennsylvanians don't eat black-eyed peas-or grits-even if that's all that's left on the shelf. We'd rather eat wallpaper." He laughed and his watermelon belly bounced like it was dancing.
"Oops," Morgan said, placing her hand over her mouth. "I thought all camps had steady diets of grits and stuff like that."
"In these Pocono Mountains, you'll find baked beans, griddle-fried potatoes, and homemade biscuits. No grits! I repeat, no grits! Just give me a good ol' quarter-pounder nestled between two slices of fresh-baked bread, and I'm a happy camper. We've got great cooks and great eats here at the camp. I'm sure you'll be a tremendous help to our kitchen staff, little lady."
"I can't wait," Morgan said.
"Now, folks," Mr. Wheaten said, "the first thing we need to do is get your mounts bedded down and get you girls registered at headquarters." He pointed to another large building nearby. "That's your first stop. Then we'll show you your assigned bunkhouse, and after chow, you'll get the nickel tour of the place. Tomorrow the campers arrive, and we're off into a summer of 'what will happen next?' So if Annie Oakley wants to help me, we'll unload-oh-what are the horses' names?"
"Champ and Blaze," Morgan said.
Mr. Wheaten continued, "Okay, we'll unload Champ and Blaze so they can take a nice long nap in their stalls before munch time."
"Annie Oakley?" Skye said, scratching her head.
Mrs. Chambers laughed. "Skye, you're a little too young to know about that TV program. As a matter of fact, I wasn't around then either, but my mother told me about it because she was as crazy about horses as we are. Annie Oakley was an expert horsewoman and sharpshooter who always wore pigtails."
"Little lady, you'd look just like her if you had pigtails," Mr. Wheaten said. "And I am old enough to remember that TV show. One of my all-time favorites."
"Hey," Morgan said, "I learned about Annie Oakley in history class. She was a real person back in the early 1900s. Skye, you'd look cool with pigtails."
"I'll pray about it," Skye joked, walking toward the back of the horse trailer.
* * *
"Hey, burgers and cheese, but no black-eyed peas!" Skye and Morgan sang and giggled outside the mess hall after supper.
Following their introduction to "camp grub," they sat through a not-too-boring orientation with all the other volunteers. Next-as soon as Mr. Wheaten could join them-they would get their guided tour.
"I wonder where Chad is." Skye surveyed the surroundings, hoping to see a blond head and gorgeous brown eyes pop out from behind a tree. "I mean, my summer will be totally ruined if he doesn't show up. I sure hope he didn't change his mind."
Morgan wheeled down off the mess hall ramp and faced the entrance of the camp. "If I know Chad, he's probably working late at the hardware store to try to get the very last buck he can earn. After all, taking a summer off to volunteer here isn't gonna help his college fund at all."
"Oh, he told me he'll get paid since he's the camp's junior activity director and the lifeguard. The pay isn't much, but at least it's something."
"I bet he'll pop his cute little dimples in here any sec," Morgan assured Skye. "And besides, don't forget why you're here. It's not exactly for making goo-goo eyes at Chad."
As the girls giggled, Mr. Wheaten came out of the mess hall. Three other teens trailed behind him.
"Well, little ladies," he bellowed, "how was your first camp chow? Morgan, if your heart's really set on black-eyed peas, I'll run into town to the store and get you a can." He roared with laughter.
"I'll pass." Morgan laughed too.
Mr. Wheaten waved at the teens coming along behind. "C'mere, kids. I want you to meet some of your co-workers."
They lined up beside the man.
"Skye and Morgan," he began, "this is Tim Marshall, Caleb Grant, and Linda Kraft."
The teens exchanged hellos.
Mr. Wheaten continued, "Tim is part of the barn crew. He'll be workin' with the horses, so you two will see a lot of him. Caleb's helping out the grounds crew and maintenance, and Linda is our lifeguard."
"Lifeguard?" Skye's tone sounded defensive. "I thought Chad Dressler was the lifeguard, I mean-"
"He can't be on duty every hour every day," Linda said as if she were correcting a toddler. "The poor guy would turn into a lobster-even with an umbrella over him."
Well, whoop dee doo, Skye thought. She stared pitchforks at Linda's golden curls, sky-blue eyes, and dimples. And you better stay away from him. "Chad is coming, isn't he, Mr. Wheaten?"
Mr. Wheaten smiled. "Yeah, he should be here early tomorrow morning. He had to put in double time on his last day of work."
Skye glanced at Morgan, who shot her an I-told-you-so smile.
"Speaking of working," Caleb said as he started walking away, "they want me over at the garage. Something about greasin' lawn tractor axles and pumpin' air into tires. See you guys later."
"Okay, Caleb." Mr. Wheaten turned toward Skye. "Anyway, just as you've done, Tim and Linda have taken a crash course in American Sign Language. Tim is the chaperone in the boys' bunkhouse where Jonathan Martin will be staying. Jonathan's the only hearing-impaired camper we have this year. We always plan to have at least two deaf children, but the other deaf boy who wanted to come had to have his tonsils out last week. Jonathan's parents decided to send Jonathan anyway. They told me he's used to being alone. He's only eight, he hates girls, and I hear he's a rascal."
"Does he speak?" Skye asked. "I learned in my signing class that many deaf children learn to talk."
"No, I don't think he can. His paperwork didn't say anything about that," Mr. Wheaten said. "Also, he's been signing his whole life. He won't wait for you to decipher what he's trying to say. So I'd like you to be real sharp with your signing. Maybe on some of your time off, the three of you could get together and practice. "
Tim and I will, Skye decided without a second thought. "Yeah, sure," she said.
Mr. Wheaten removed his Stetson, wiped his sweaty brow on his arm, and squared his hat on his head. "My wife knows how to sign too. She does all the chapel services, so we've got our bases covered there. But with all his different activities, Jonathan will be spending most of his time with you kids. I'm so thankful you three took the time to learn how to sign. I don't know what we could have planned for him without you."
"I guess your wife would've had to come to camp all day every day!" Tim laughed.
Mr. Wheaten joined in the laughter. "Well, let me tell you a little secret. Swimming she can handle, but horseback riding? All I can picture is a horse runnin' over the hill with a lady in midlife crisis hangin' on for dear life."
"That is too funny!" Linda giggled.
Everyone laughed but Skye, who folded her arms and forced out a smile.
"Enough of this nonsense!" Mr. Wheaten managed to say between chuckles. "Are you kids ready for the nickel tour of this place?"
"Yeah," Skye said.
"Let's go for it," Tim agreed.
"Okay," Mr. Wheaten said, pointing across the road. "Let's start with the barn and riding corral. I need to introduce you to the horses and fill you in on the very special training each has."
The group followed Mr. Wheaten as he started across the road.
"Camp Tioga is a very special place," the man started, rambling like a real estate broker offering the deal of the century. "Now, notice that everywhere you look there are paved sidewalks, little road signs with Braille directions, ramps and stainless steel railings-but no steps. By this time tomorrow, this place will be crawling with wheelchairs, kids in helmets, guide dogs-"
"This place is so cool," Skye whispered to Morgan. "But tomorrow it will be better. Much better!"
Chapter TwoSkye and Morgan sat in the mess hall at 8:00 a.m. with Tim, Caleb, and all the other workers and volunteers. The large room buzzed with chatter and utensils clanging on dishes at every table. The smell of fried potatoes, toast, and coffee filled the room.
Just to see Mr. Wheaten's reaction, Skye had put on her western horse show outfit and plaited her hair into pigtails. She looked sharp in her plaid shirt, suede cowboy hat, red scarf, and leather chaps. Now she and Morgan were sampling their first taste of creamed eggs and waiting for Mr. Wheaten to come in and make the morning announcements.
"Mr. Wheaten didn't tell us about creamed eggs," Skye said out of the side of her mouth. "But I guess they're better than nothing."
"Well, they're interesting," Morgan replied. "Yeah, that's a good word for them. Interesting. They oughta call them squashed eggs, not creamed. Just wait until I get back in that kitchen, Skye. You'll think you're in food heaven. I start today after we get all our campers registered and settled in the bunkhouse."
Skye took a bite of toast and washed it down with orange juice. "Didn't Mr. Wheaten say that most of the campers will get here this afternoon?"
"Yeah," Tim said, brushing his hand over his dark brown spiked hair. His hazel eyes sparkled with excitement. "They said in registration that they're expecting 110 junior campers this week-all between the ages of eight and twelve. The place will be crawling with kids like ants in an ant farm. What gets me are the ones that are scared out of their pants by horses. But I guess that's why we're here-to help our fellow man! Hey, speakin' of horses, Skye, I like your cool duds-and your hair. Are you in a skit or something?"
"Nah," Skye said. "I'm just kind of pulling a joke on Mr. Wheaten."
"How's that?" Caleb scooped up a forkful of home fries while riveting his jade green eyes on Morgan.
Skye couldn't help notice Morgan staring back. "Yesterday Mr. Wheaten called me Annie Oakley," Skye said, giggling, "and he said I'd look just like her if I had pigtails."
"And Skye's not likely to let anything like that pass without making a statement, even if it might be ridiculous," Morgan added, still staring at Caleb.
Well, well, well, dear sis, I do believe you're blushing, Skye thought as she watched the action out of the corner of her eye. What do we have here? How cool.
"Oh, I get it," Tim said. "Annie Oakley was some cowgirl dude who lived at the turn of the last century. Right?"
"Close enough." Morgan's attention was glued to Caleb.
Caleb stood and picked up his tray, his muscular frame bulging under his blue maintenance shirt. "Morgan, I'd like to hear more about how you ride horses even with your cerebral palsy. That's so awesome. But right now I gotta get over to the garage. How about later-like after supper?"
"Well-I-," Morgan began, blushing a shade of red that almost outdid her hair.
"She'd be glad to," Skye answered for her. "She'll have a free hour between mess hall duty and bedding down the campers, won't you?" Skye gave Morgan an only-girls-know-what-this-means smirk.
"Yeah, I guess I will," Morgan said, glancing down at her tray.
"Well, I'll see you at the bonfire then," Caleb said.
"Bonfire?" Morgan said, looking at Caleb again.