"I wanted you to see how beautiful this country is before I told you something," said Laurie, stopping the pickup in the middle of the deserted road. "Something bad."

I squinted through the cracked windshield at the dusty sagebrush flats shimmering in the heat. Nothing moved in the barren, treeless landscape that stretched away for hundreds of miles in all directions. A hot, gritty wind punched at the side of the truck.

"One of the other guests died on the trail yesterday," she continued. "Hit by lightning. A freak accident. There was nothing we could have done to prevent it."

I stared at her.

"It's sad, of course," Laurie said with a shrug, "but most of the guests decided to finish the cattle drive and everything is just fine." She smiled brightly. "So there's nothing to worry about and you're going to have a great time!" She threw the pickup into gear and floored it.

It occurred to me that I should cut my losses before I followed the lightning-struck dude to the last roundup. I'd been feeling uneasy ever since I got on a plane in Washington and headed for Wyoming, where I planned to join a dozen other cowpoke novitiates for a six-day cattle drive on a 90,000-acre ranch several hours from Cody. But I decided to take my chances.

"Roll up your window," Laurie said sharply as we approached what was left of an antelope tipped into the ditch, its bloated carcass chewed by coyotes and vultures. By the time we finally arrived at the huddle of crude wooden structures that Laurie and her boyfriend passed off as a guest ranch, all I could think about was a cold beer.

"No alcohol is served at the ranch," Laurie said evenly. "And we ask guests who have brought liquor with them to drink it in their rooms." This news struck me as far more serious than the story about the dead guest. I briefly considered snatching a rifle from a nearby cabinet and forcing Laurie to drive me back to Cody at gunpoint.

As I slumped on the steps of the lodge, a glassy-eyed woman dressed in a nightshirt and cowboy boots stumbled past me. I greeted her warmly, hoping she'd offer me some of whatever she'd been drinking. She sat down with a thud on the step beside me.

"I was at that cow camp yesterday and saw the guy die," she said hoarsely. "It was so horrible that I'm on tranquilizers until I can get out of here tomorrow." She showed me the small pill vial she had clutched in her fist.

I scrambled to my feet and down the porch steps into the tall grass beside the lodge. "Watch it!" she croaked. "This place is crawling with rattlesnakes."

Eager to put this nightmare of a day behind me, I stole some food from the kitchen and barricaded myself in my room, an airless cell lit by a lamp fashioned out of elk forelegs and hoofs. When I turned on the lamp to read, big moths swarmed from cracks in the rough board walls and hurled themselves at the scorched shade. I went to bed while it was still light outside.

The next morning, guests were paired up with horses for the cattle drive. To find just the right horse for each rider, a cowboy roped a wild-looking animal that clearly had other plans, threw a saddle on it and a dude on top the saddle and then stood back. If the dude stayed on, it was a match.

"This is L.B.," said a smiling wrangler, presenting me with a jittery, long-legged horse. "He hasn't been rode much this year, so don't take no nonsense from him." L.B. glared at me, ears back. I eased myself into the saddle and nudged him into a walk. As I leaned down to adjust a stirrup, one of the ranch dogs ambled across our path. L.B. spooked sideways in a lightning-fast move that jerked me out of the saddle. On the way down, my boot hung up in the stirrup long enough to rearrange my knee ligaments. I landed on my back and rolled away from L.B., who was trying to stomp me into the dirt.

An hour later, my knee looked like a cantaloupe. I went gunning for Laurie and found her in the ranch office. "Full refund!" I barked. "And a ride back to Cody."

"May I speak metaphysically?" she smiled, patting my knee. "Know that you are always protected."

"Laurie," I hissed, batting her hand away. "Know that I am out of here." Nancy Debevoise is a Washington writer who has survived a decade of playing cowgirl on ranches in the northern Rockies.