2018 Fiction Honorable Mention
BY SHANNON FOX
Normally when Paige put her foot into the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle, she was filled with a feeling of peace, like she had come home again. But not today, or any day since Tuck had died.
She reached down and patted Flynn on the neck. He was a good boy, a good horse. He just wasn’t her heart horse.
Flynn half turned his head to look back at her, and she scratched his jaw before squeezing his sides to urge him forward into a walk. She needed a long solo trail ride to clear her head after the craziness of work. Also, needed this time to grieve.
After Tuck died a month ago, she tried to take the next day off. Just one day to lie in bed and lean into the torrent of her emotions, to the grief that threatened to drown her. But her boss hadn’t understood the aching hole she felt in her chest, how raw the hurt was. “It’s just a horse, Paige,” Mac had told her on the phone. “And we need you here. You know how busy this month is. With the acquisition coming up and then the conference at the end of the month. We need all hands on deck.”
Mac was the reason she’d left her phone in her tack trunk today. He’d been texting her day and night, his own anxiety about the coming month spilling over into questions and commands. Every text was punctuated with a friendly “When you get back to the office” but it still did not to quell the stomach-churning nerves she felt each time she saw a new text from her boss.
As Paige rode Flynn down the long row of pastures towards the gate that led to the open space park beyond, they were greeted with a chorus of nickers and whinnies from the horses who lived at this end of the property. The grooms were still feeding all of the horses and hadn’t made it this far down. Flynn glanced at the other horses with a curious eye, but when she pressed her heels against his sides, his ears swiveled back. She knew he was still paying attention her.
As they approached the fence that separated the barn from the land beyond, she felt his muscles tense at the sight of the wide field. This would be the first time she’d dared to take Flynn out into the open space since he’d arrived.
A niggling thought tugged at her, a remembrance from horsemanship lessons in her youth—she shouldn’t be riding alone. She was taking a risk by bringing a horse she didn’t know well into an unknown situation without a buddy and without her phone.
Paige pushed those thoughts away. It would be fine. Flynn was seventeen, not some green four-year-old. Her trainer, Tom, had competed him in some of the largest arenas in the country, under stadium lights and jumbotrons, in front of crowds of hundreds of dressage fans. There was nothing they’d meet on the trail that was scarier than that. And her phone, well, her phone was the source of all her anxiety these days. She’d chuck it in a lake if she could.
“You’ll be fine, Paige,” she told herself. Flynn flicked his ears back at her voice before returning his attention to the land unfolding in front of them.
It had been a long, hot summer and the green Colorado grass had dried up and turned yellow. She’d heard on the radio as she drove to the barn that they were in for another day of record-breaking heat. But rather than cancel her trail ride, Paige had stopped at the gas station to buy another bottle of water. This was one of the only weekends she hadn’t had to travel for work since Flynn had died, and she wasn’t going to let the weather stop her from riding. She planned to be back at the barn well before noon anyway.
Paige pulled up Flynn in front of the fence. He stood quietly as she leaned down and undid the chain on the gate, his focus still on the bare, golden hills beyond. Her helmet slipped forward as she bent down, briefly obscuring her vision.
After Flynn had walked through and she had secured the gate behind them, Paige pushed her helmet back and tightened the chinstrap. She knew she needed to buy a new one, but now that she had Tuck’s emergency bills to pay, it would be awhile before that happened.
After twenty minutes of riding with the sun at her back, they found the entrance to the ravine. As Paige nudged Flynn towards the narrow rock walls, she felt gooseflesh prickle the back of her neck. She always did when she entered this place.
Growing up in the area, Paige had often heard a rumor that the land the barn sat on was haunted. That it had once been a sacred burial ground, and that’s why the open space around it stayed natural rather than a neighborhood of homes.
Paige didn’t really believe that. She didn’t believe in ghosts, sacred or otherwise. But she couldn’t deny the creeping feeling that always came over her when she rode into this canyon.
“Probably in my head,” she said to Flynn. She patted the big bay on the neck. He didn’t react to her touch, keeping his ears trained forward on the path ahead. Beneath her, she felt his muscles tighten further. Rather that moving confidently forward as Tuck would have done, Flynn shied away from the tight entrance to the slot canyon.
“Oh, come on,” Paige growled, giving him a thump with her legs. “You’re being silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Flynn hesitated for a moment more before taking tentative steps forward towards the ravine.
Once they were fully inside the canyon, Paige felt the temperature drop a few degrees as the rock walls around them blocked the majority of the sun’s rays. In a few hours, the sun would move directly overhead and they would lose the shade, but for now the canyon was relatively cool and peaceful.
A rabbit suddenly shot out of the scrubby brush ahead and Flynn slammed to a stop. He lifted his head and snorted loudly.
Paige ran her hand through the silky strands of his mane. “You’re fine,” she said. “Just a rabbit.”
As if he understood her, Flynn dropped his head and took a cautious step forward. When no more rabbits erupted from the underbrush, she felt him let out a breath and resume his forward pace.
She patted Flynn on the neck. She knew he was trying to please her, trying to make her happy. But he wasn’t Tuck, that was for sure.
Tears stung her eyes as she finally allowed the memories of Tuck to overwhelm her. A sob escaped from her lips as she remembered that her perfect horse was gone.
She’d been blessed to find him at all, let alone to be able to afford him. She’d worked all through college to be able to buy a horse of her own after graduation. With just enough money scraped together, she’d tried horse after horse. Each time she walked away disappointed. Just when she was about to give up and go back to saving, she saw an ad for a young chestnut online.
From the moment Paige sat on Tuck, she knew he was the one. Though barely broken to ride, he was incredibly talented already and with the right training, he would be a star. But more than that, he was kind, honest, and brave.
Flynn suddenly jerked his head up, startling Paige from her thoughts. A large black bird on the branches of a tree ahead of them flapped its wings and cawed.
“Seriously?” Paige said. She felt anger rush through her. “Why do you have to spook at everything? Why can’t you just walk forward on your own?”
Like Tuck would have.
That started the tears all over again.
When Tuck had shown the first signs of colic, she’d called Tom who’d been away at a horse show. He stayed on the phone with her until the vet arrived. After she’d made the heart-wrenching decision to end Tuck’s suffering, she’d called Tom again, weeping, to let him know that Tuck was gone.
So when Tom had called and offered Flynn, her gut reaction was to snap at him. Didn’t he get it? She didn’t want another horse. She just wanted Tuck back. But at twenty-nine, she knew by now whining would get her nowhere. Tom gave her an amazing gift. He let her lease his schoolmaster for much less than he could have gotten someone else to pay for him. So she swallowed the anger, the hard words that threatened to erupt from her lips, and made plans to bring Flynn over to her barn.
It had been a smooth transition for the most part. Flynn took to her with ease. Within days he’d taken to nickering loudly at her as soon as she walked into the barn. While the behavior was cute, all it did was remind her that he wasn’t Tuck. Tuck never called to her like that, though he’d shown he was happy to see her in his own way. Whenever Tuck had been out in the big pasture, he’d always been waiting by the gate when she came to collect him. At first, she wondered how he knew she was there, but later decided it was just more evidence that he truly was her heart horse.
Paige felt her anger ebbing away, replaced with guilt. Flynn wasn’t Tuck. But he wasn’t trying to be either. He just liked having a job and a person—even if his person suffered from a broken heart.
Paige wiped at the tears that had rolled down her cheek. Flynn was a nice horse and he would teach her so much, but she didn’t know if she was ready to open her heart to him. If she’d ever be ready.
The canyon path eventually diverged into two forks, with the wider leading to the left and the narrower route going to the right. Paige directed Flynn to the right. The waterfall was about a mile down from here.
New noises greeted her as they entered the smaller canyon. A symphony of cicadas punctuated with the chirps of birds. Even the ground sounded different as it crunched under Flynn’s hooves. Reaching into her saddlebag for the water, Paige took a long drink. The day had warmed up considerably and she could feel sweat trickling down her back.
Just as she recapped her water bottle and placed it back in the bag, she heard a clattering noise on the path ahead of them. She lifted her head to see what it was, only to feel Flynn surge forward and launch himself into a buck.
The movement took her so by surprise that when his hooves came back down, she found herself pitched off to the right side of the saddle with one foot already out of the stirrup. She tried desperately to grab her stirrup back and shorten her reins, but already she could feel Flynn’s muscles coiling as he prepared for another, even more explosive buck. She knew she had to jump off before she was thrown, but as she tried to kick her foot out of her other stirrup, Flynn shook his head violently from side to side. He jumped into the air, twisted, and launched her out of the saddle.
Her right hip hit the ground first and the impact sent fireworks across her field of vision. Then her head snapped forward, smashing the front of her helmet against a rock. A sharp wave of pain and dizziness erupted in her skull.
Paige lay still for only a moment, trying desperately to get her breath back. She knew she had to get up, get off the ground before Flynn could step on her. Whatever he had seen, it had really panicked him. He could trample her in fear, but as she tried to move her right leg, the pain in her hip was blinding.
Groaning, she turned her head to the left to see where Flynn went. The effort caused another wave of dizziness to sweep over her, but as her eyes refocused, she spotted Flynn just a few feet away. His eyes were wide and his nostrils flared as he slowly approached her.
He nudged her shoulder, and she reached up with one hand to grab the dangling reins. The movement was too much for her, and she fell back against the ground. Paige closed her eyes and took stock of her injuries as she willed the world to stop spinning. The skin of her hands and knees stung, and she imagined she had at least a few cuts from landing on the rocky ground. Despite how bad her head felt, the helmet had probably absorbed the worst of the impact from the ground.
Which left her hip as the worst of her injuries. As the adrenaline wore off, she could feel the pounding ache in her hip coming more strongly with each beat of her heart. And that was before she moved it. Moving sent a sharp spike of pain rocketing through her body. She had no idea how she’d get back on.
She felt Flynn nudge her in the ribs and she opened her eyes. He had moved so he shaded her with his body.
“Thank you,” she muttered and brought her hand up to pet him. Just as Flynn turned away from her and took off down the canyon, back the way they had come.
Paige swore out loud and lay back in the dirt. She knew it. She just knew it. Flynn would never measure up to Tuck. Tuck wouldn’t have left her like that. He would have stayed right by her side, protecting her, until someone found them.
Panic rose. She had been so stupid. Stupid to trust Flynn and go out without a buddy. Without her phone. Without telling anyone where she’d gone. Now she was going to die here. What a waste of a life. Twenty-nine years old, no boyfriend, no kids, just a job that overworked her and would replace her within the month.
“Get it together, Paige,” she snapped at herself. She pushed the panic away, blocking the spiraling thoughts from her mind. “Someone could still come.”
She felt the sun beating down on her and knew she needed to find shade soon. Especially if she was going to be stuck here without water, waiting to hopefully be rescued.
She lifted her head again and noticed a patch of shade about fifty feet away. It surely would shift as the sun rose higher, but she didn’t know how long she was going to have to wait. It was only the option she had.
Gritting her teeth, Paige began to pull herself forward on her hands and elbows. She used her good leg to give herself a little leverage, but it was still agonizing work to slowly drag herself along as the rocks. Gravel tore at her clothes and skin. By the time she reached the shade, she was soaked in sweat. Paige put her cheek on the cool ground, and finally closed her eyes to rest.
When she woke later, the sun was higher in the sky. Her shade patch had shrunk considerably. Paige licked the stickiness away from her lips and realized how thirsty she was.
“If only that damn horse hadn’t run off with my water,” she muttered. Her voice sounded raspy to her own ears. Talking to herself was maybe not the best use of her remaining energy.
She could still hear the buzz of cicadas in the canyon, but nothing else beyond it. No bird song or footsteps of an errant horse. She looked back the way Flynn had run, but she didn’t see any signs of movement.
If Flynn had run back to the barn, the grooms would see him. They would know instantly what had happened and come looking for her. But if Flynn was still in the canyon somewhere, no one would realize there was a horse wandering around without a rider.
If he was still in the canyon, maybe he’d come back to her. If he did, maybe she could grit her teeth against the pain and pull herself back into the saddle. She definitely couldn’t walk, but maybe she could ride back to the barn.
She strained her eyes, trying to peer as far as she could down the path. When she’d fallen off Tuck, he had always hung around nearby. Granted, she’d always been at the barn and never out in the wilderness, but she wanted to believe that Flynn wouldn’t just completely leave her. Would he?
Or maybe he would, she thought grimly. It’s not like she’d gone out of her way to bond with him. She’d been so focused on comparing him to Tuck, keeping a mental tally of all the ways he didn’t measure up, that she’d kept him at a distance. Flynn had tried over and over to close the distance between them, nickering and trying to cuddle up against her, but she’d pushed him away, literally and figuratively.
“So stupid, Paige,” she muttered. “You didn’t even try. And now look where that’s got you.”
A faint clopping noise reached her ears. Paige squinted at the path again. Was that movement down there? In the bright sunlight with her head injury, she didn’t entirely trust her eyes. The clopping noise got louder, and she could now see that something large and brown was coming her way.
Relief flooded her. Flynn came back after all.
But as the creature drew closer, she could see that though it was a horse, it wasn’t Flynn. Flynn was a dark bay and this horse was a coppery chestnut. Just like Tuck.
Paige gasped. As the horse came closer and closer, she recognized the cowlick on his chest, the tiny white star on his head, the barbed wire scar on his shoulder. The tears flowed freely now. Tuck was back. Tuck was alive. Or maybe she was dead? But either way, Tuck was standing in front of her, curiously sniffing at her body and perhaps wondering what she was doing on the ground.
With a trembling hand, Paige reached up and touched his face. He felt real. His fur was warm to the touch and she could feel his breath against her wrist. He blinked his big brown eyes at her and nudged her arm with his nose.
“I missed you,” she said. Her voice cracked with emotion.
Tuck gently blew into her face, his breath scented with hay. He took a step back and her chest clenched. “Don’t leave me,” she said. “Not again.”
Tuck dipped his head to the ground as he rocked his weight back and went down to his knees. After a moment, his hindquarters dropped to the ground behind him. His body offered her some shade from the sun, which had grown unrelentingly hot as it moved higher in the sky. Paige stretched out a hand to her horse, who nibbled at it gently with his velvety lips.
“Thank you,” she said.
Tuck’s eyelids drooped and she remembered the way he had looked at her that night at the veterinary hospital. Before they’d taken him away to perform the colic surgery, a surgery he wouldn’t survive. Tuck had looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes, pleading with her to help him. He was so tired, but he hadn’t given up yet. He needed Paige to keep fighting for him.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I did try. I thought it would help. I thought they could save you.”
She could barely get the words out around the lump in her throat. She knew she had tried. The colic surgery was so expensive, more than her bank account could bear. Yet when the vet who had come out to the barn told her that Tuck needed to go to the hospital, Paige hadn’t even hesitated. She remembered how badly her hands had been shaking as she tried to hook up her trailer. How she nearly took her finger off trying to hurry through the process. How she prayed to a God she hadn’t talked to in years.
A God who would let her down, again.
Paige pressed her hand against the white star on Tuck’s forehead.
“Everything has been so hard,” she sobbed. “Knowing you were waiting for me to come to the barn and squeeze in a ride before work got me up on my worst days. And you kept me going to work, too. Knowing I had to take care of you, even if I couldn’t or didn’t want to take care of myself. And now, I just don’t know. I don’t know.”
She closed her eyes and cried harder. She missed Tuck with everything she had. He was her light on the shore. Without him, she felt like the storm was coming for her, to drag her out to sea and drown her.
“I know Tom means well,” she said, at last. “He hopes that Flynn will fill up the hole in my heart that you left. But he can’t. He’s not you. And you’ll never be you. It’s his fault I’m hurt. He spooked at nothing and threw me. You would have never done that.”
Tuck lifted his head and looked at her intently with his soft brown eyes. Suddenly she remembered their first ride in the open space.
“I’d forgotten,” she said. “You were afraid in the beginning, too. You weren’t always so confident on the trail. That took time.”
She stroked the velvety skin of Tuck’s muzzle.
“And maybe that was foolish of me to think that just because Flynn had shown so much, he’d be comfortable being out here by himself. That probably wasn’t fair of me.”
Tuck’s eyelids drooped again and a deep feeling of weariness swept over her. She knew she shouldn’t close her eyes again. That she might not wake up if she did, but it was so hard to resist the seductive pull of sleep.
Voices in the canyon woke her. Judging by the position of the sun, it was be nearing late afternoon.
Paige opened her mouth and tried to call out to them, but her words stuck in her throat. She coughed and tried again, seeing movement coming towards her. As they got closer, she made out a man and woman dressed in jogging clothes. The woman was holding the leash of a yellow lab and the man held Flynn’s reins.
“Are you hurt?” the man asked as they drew close to her. “I assume this is your horse.”
After she explained what had happened and what her injuries were, the man pointed at Flynn. “This is a good horse you’ve got here,” the man said. “We were walking near the ravine and he came right up to us. Seemed to want us to come with him, so we followed him, and he led us right to you.”
Tears prickled at her eyes once again. Paige reached out a hand to Flynn, who gently bumped it with his nose. She knew he was sorry. He hadn’t intended to throw her, and he’d helped her the best that he could. He wasn’t as brave as Tuck, but he was still a good horse.
As Flynn stared back at her with his soft, dark eyes, she thought she saw Tuck looking back at her.
Telling her it was okay to let him go.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.