Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story
Third Place Children
by Nisha McNealis
The exhausted scout ran as fast as he could towards the horse breeding grounds. The huge stables and showy arenas were surrounded by a tall, bright green wall with a big, bolted door. The scout, breathing heavily, ran to this door and withdrew a key from his cloth bag. He clumsily unlocked the door and ran into the grounds. He made his way over to a large wooden building, painted a garish purple that shone in the hot sun. He knocked twice on the door and inhaled deeply, summoning up his courage. A tall, menacing figure opened the door.
“ You are back,” he snarled.
“ Y-yes sir,” the trembling scout stammered. “ I come with good news. I have just spotted a large herd of horses in Wild Meadow. They are heading towards us.”
The man’s face twisted into what could have been a smile.
“Good,” he said simply, and closed the door. Walking through the wide hall, he saw a small girl with mousy brown hair coming through a door at the back of the hall.
“ We have just spotted a herd of horses,” he told her. “We attack tonight.”
I breathed in and smelled the revitalizing fragrance of fresh grass and wildflowers. My glossy, chestnut colored coat shone in the day’s last rays of warm sunlight. I nickered to my herd, and a few horses whinnied back. We broke into smooth canters, and I watched the world fly by.
I heard the thundering hooves of my best friend Fire beside me, and I thought back to the endless days we had spent as foals playing in long grass. I also remembered how, only a few days ago, Fire had earned her name. She had bravely entered a blazing forest fire to rescue two trembling foals and their wounded mother. Luckily she had escaped without any severe burns. I felt a pang of regret that I had not yet earned my name, but each morning I woke up hoping that I would do something worthy enough to receive one.
When we finally slowed, we were nearing a favorite grazing spot. It had lush green grass, and a few foals trotted up to us on their thin, shaky legs. I bent my neck and hungrily devoured the tasty blades of grass. The crimson sun sank into the vast sky and I thought about what a glorious day it had been. Then, whinnying goodnight to Breeze - the leader of our herd, I settled down for the night. The last thing I saw before drifting off was the deep blue sky with thousands of twinkling stars.
I woke up to several shouts and frightened neighs. It was dark, and at first I couldn’t see a thing. I blinked a few times and looked around me. At least a dozen young men, all holding either big leather crops or thick ropes were surrounding us. My eyes rolled and I reared in panic. I tried to gallop away, but my foot caught a rock and I tumbled to the ground. I felt a lasso slip around my neck. I struggled, but it was no use. I was caught.
The strong men had captured many other horses, and nearly all the little foals. I saw Breeze trying in vain to escape the smooth but sturdy halter. I bucked and shied away from the men, but I received a powerful lash from a tough whip. I had no choice but to follow the burly men.
They forced me up a rusty metal ramp, which led to a big truck. I nervously pawed at the metal floor when the ramp was pulled up. I didn’t drink the moldy water they shoved in front of me. The truck lurched, and I flew into the wall of the truck. When I turned back to look at my herd, I was too late. Now I could only see a black road and grey houses.
I closed my eyes and listened to the unfamiliar sounds of the truck. The truck went on and on for what seemed like hours. At long last, it lurched to a halt. When I woke up, I was roughly led in through a long, dark stable and into a stall. The floor was covered in hay, and the sweet smell of it dazed me.
A blazing ray of sunlight temporarily blinded me. I heard the creak of a door closing, and I was able to make out a small silhouette at the door. When it had closed fully, I saw a young, brown-haired girl. She smiled when she saw me. She tentatively reached out a tiny hand and gently stroked my soft nose.
When she touched me, my senses cleared. I knew immediately that there was a special bond between us. I nuzzled her shoulder, grateful for her touch. I jumped when a loud voice shouted something. The girl gave me one last smile and exited the stall. A minute later, one of the men from the night before walked in.
He heaved a saddle onto my back, and I squirmed when he tightened the girth. Yanking the reins, he dragged me outside. Before me was a huge arena. The floor was covered in sparkling sand, and the walls looked freshly painted. He walked me through the falsely cheerful red gate, and over to a big mounting block. I tossed my mane and pulled back but he persistently tugged at my reins and I gave in. I stood at the block, sweating in the hot sun, and I let my thoughts wander to the girl. When she had touched me, I had felt alert but relaxed. My thoughts were disrupted when a big man heaved himself up onto my back. My saddle groaned under his heavy bulk. He kicked me but I didn’t budge. I hoped that if I refused to ride well, they might send me back to the wild.
I felt the sharp whack of his whip on my back and I pranced around. Then, with my last ounce of energy, I reared and he flew up in mid-air, landing with a thud on the sandy ground.
The sound of angry shouts behind me made me spin around. A few men grabbed my reins and pulled me to the gate of the arena. When we got out, I saw that they were not taking me back to my stable. They urged me further on and shoved me into a small, metal holding pen. It was cold and cramped. Water fell in drops from the ceiling. I heard the sound of a key turning in the lock. I was trapped.
I surveyed my surroundings in dismay. Sunlight was streaming in through a tiny window. I peered through the glass and reared back when I saw a pair of dark brown eyes! Then I realized it had to be the girl.
I sneaked a peek again but nobody was there. A few moments later, the door was banged open. Scared, I shrank into the shadows. Then I saw that it was the girl. She was smiling, but all of a sudden, her smile faded. I heard the shouts of angry men and through the open door I could already see them approaching. I felt the girl touch my neck and in a few seconds she was on my back. Without speaking, we had formulated a plan. I galloped for the door.
“Ride like the wind!” the girl said, her voice urgent. And I did. To this day, I don’t think I have ever run so fast. I dodged the flabbergasted men, and jumped over the high wall. The girl’s eyes were streaming, but she held on tightly as we galloped across the grassy fields. I didn’t turn back for a long time. But when I did, no one was in sight. I slowed down, and I felt the girl roll off me, to the ground.
“The farm is my home. The meadow is yours.” she explained, and with that she turned and walked away, a lonely figure in a sea of grey houses. Unable to stop, I galloped on until I could see trees and flowers. As I finally reached the spot where I used to graze, I heard thundering hooves and I saw about a third of my herd, including Fire. We greeted each other happily, though we all felt the sorrow of losing our friends and family. Then, seeing their questioning faces, I began to recount my story. They listened attentively, and gasped at my incredible escape. When I was done, there was a moment of silence. Then Fire began to cheer, and the rest of the herd joined in.
That night, I was given a name.
“Lightning,” said the horses, “because she runs so fast.”
Glowing with pride, I raised my head and inhaled the familiar scent of fresh grass and blossoming wildflowers.
It had been three months since my escape. I had awoken early, before the other horses. The air smelled fresh and the grass was wet with dew. My muscles were stiff and I decided to go for a run. Shaking the sleep from my eyes, I took off at a gallop. I ran and ran, leaving all my thoughts behind me, until all I could feel was the fierce wind on my face. Panting heavily, I began to slow down. As I nibbled the leaves of a brilliant yellow flower, I marveled at the feeling of being the only horse in the world.
Then I realized where I was. I had reached the breeding grounds. I could already see the wall! Terror gripped me, and I was about to flee when I heard movement on the other side of the wall. Paralyzed with fear, I watched as the door was unbolted and opened.
A small figure, carrying a wooden basket, emerged. It was the girl who had ridden me back to freedom. She turned towards me and her eyes widened in recognition. As we made eye contact, she laughed in amazement. I wanted to race up and greet her, but I knew I would be seen. Instead, we just stared and stared at each other for what felt like a lifetime. I bowed my head slightly, thanking her for my freedom. Then I knew it was time for me to return to my herd, and I tore away from her gaze. With a flick of my tail, I turned away and galloped toward the rising sun.
A well constructed story. The writer does a very good job of imagining events from the horse's point of view.