Cali Marlin smiled in anticipation as she held her mare, Artemis, or Arty, as Cali liked to call her. Today was the day. Every year Cali, her brother, Finn, and their parents rode all over the ranch in search of Secret, an elusive mare, and her band. Secret’s band had been loose on the ranch for years, but a human being had yet to catch a glimpse of their lead mare. The only reason they knew she existed was by finding white tail hairs caught in bushes. There was no other albino in the band. By collecting her urine and running it through multiple tests they knew she was female. And the places where she chose to relieve herself showed that she was lead mare, or at least a very high-ranking mare in the herd. This year, Cali wanted more than anything to see Secret.
“Ready to go, Carolina?” A deep voice drawled behind her. Cali turned and frowned.
“Stop it, Finn. I’ve told you a million times to call me Cali!”
“And I’ve told you a million times to call me Grand Master and Great King of the World!” Cali huffed and turned away. Finn ruffled her hair and then jumped into his horse, Pepper’s, saddle. Although the belittling gesture annoyed Cali, nothing could spoil her day now. She sprang into the saddle just as her parents came riding up.
“Everyone ready?” their dad asked.
“Ready!” Finn and Cali chorused.
They set off over rolling pastures and moved gradually into rockier country with steep outcroppings and buffeting winds. The trail they were on followed a fast flowing river upstream, higher and higher, until they were in the rocky foothills of the mountains. Cali and Finn exclaimed every time they saw something that looked like a footprint, but none of them turned out to be legitimate.
Around noon Cali’s mom pointed upwards at a massive gray storm cloud gathering on the horizon.
“Looks like rain.” Cali’s heart sank. They would have to head back—the mountains could be treacherous in bad weather. Her dream of finding Secret would have to wait until next year.
In a few minutes it started to drizzle. Cali was just beginning to hope that they would be able to keep looking after all when a bolt of lightning struck a giant twisted pine tree directly in front of them. The tree crashed to the ground with a resounding echo that shook the bones of the mountain.
“We’ll have to pick a path around it!” Finn shouted over the roaring rain. Cali’s father pushed his horse into the woods around the tree, and her mother and Finn followed. Cali squeezed Artemis, but the mare didn’t move. Cali kicked her gently. Artemis stood like a statue. Cali was starting to panic. The river was already swelling over Artemis’s hooves. She gently pulled the mare’s head away from the river, but it was no use. Artemis jigged backwards, eyes rolling in panic.
“Calm down, Arty. It’s going to be OK.” Cali glanced into the woods. Her family was gone. And Artemis was beyond reason. She danced further and further into the river.
Suddenly, a wild current swept them both into the middle of the river. Cali felt as if an icy hand was grabbing her, forcing her under the freezing water. She spluttered as finally they were pushed momentarily to the surface. The driving rain was blurring Cali’s vision, but she could have sworn she saw a flash of white in the trees on the other side of the river. But before she could confirm it a foaming wave crashed over her head, pulling her and Artemis down into the turbulent waters.
Cali clung to the mare, holding on for dear life. Artemis battled hard, thrusting her forelegs into the infinitely stronger current, but it was to no avail. Just as Cali felt certain that this was the end, a mass of solid bodies pushed them to the surface.
Cali looked around and gasped. Bays, pintos, palominos, blacks, duns, and one lone albino horse were striking out for shore, pulling Artemis along with them. Upon reaching land they shook themselves like dogs. Artemis did the same, nearly throwing Cali.
Then, carefully, they began to pick their way down the mountainside. The precision with which they moved was flawless, and even in the pouring rain they looked ethereal. Beside them Cali felt like an ugly troll in the company of swan maidens.
Finally, they reached the rolling plains beneath the foothills. With a joyous bound, they moved as one across the prairie. Their hooves tapped out a speedy staccato, and all around her Cali could see a myriad of different horses all running to the same rhythm. She raised her face to the sky and laughed from pure exhilaration. With her wet hair streaming out behind her, Cali gripped Artemis’s mane and let herself be pulled into a secret freedom.