Emily shaded her green eyes from the hot Nevada sun. A tiny breeze blew a loose strand of her dusty brown hair and relieved the humidity that made the air hang thick and heavy. Her mother's horse, Sweetie, shifted impatiently beneath her.
Emily reassured her with a pat, but her mind was in the craggy mountains that loomed high and forbidding above horse and girl. She strained her eyes, searching for a cloud of dust kicked up by a figure on a lone horse. Finally she saw movement. A mustang, running wild and unkempt in the hills. Behind it was a small herd, all shabby and scarred. All of a sudden, they broke into a gallop. The stallion screamed his shrill emergency call. Was it a bobcat that so upset the herd?
But then she saw a man who was waving a long lariat atop a bay quarter horse. Only then did she relax. She watched, enthralled, at the scene going on far above. Man and horse closed in on a handsome mare, coat gleaming in the sunlight. The horse received small signals from his rider that were only seen by the experienced eye. After lassoing a few mustangs, the pair rode down the steep cliff toward Emily. The man grinned with pride at the fine mare he had caught.
"She ought to fetch a fair price," her father determined. He worked for the Bureau of Land Management, capturing mustangs to sell at silent auctions to qualifying owners-to-be.
"Yeah. Ain't she gorgeous," Emily replied. "Mom's looking for you."
"All right. Let's go down to the house together."
The smiling Sarah Jenners came to the door to greet them in her apron, flour coating her arms up to her elbows. Nevertheless, she hugged her husband and daughter, speckling their clothes with whiteness. Joshua and Emily flicked the flour off onto the dry ground.
Sarah looked at the mustangs Joshua had caught with a dreamy look in her eyes. "They're so beautiful," she told them.
"That one isn't so pretty—look, he's got scars all over him. He's a sorry sight, all right," Joshua commented.
"Oh, no—he's the most beautiful of all."
Emily couldn't say she agreed with this, but she decided not to press further. During supper, Joshua described his capture. "I was chasing the herd, and a pretty little mare caught my eye. I brought Wild Thing close to her to try to corner her, and just for a second I was distracted by a rearing horse. When I looked back toward the mare, she was gone."
"Maybe she went off in a hidden crevice," Emily suggested.
"You're probably right," her father agreed. "There are plenty of hiding places in the mountains." He pushed his plate aside and rose from the table. "Well, I'd best get a good night's sleep—I have a hard trek tomorrow." Emily remembered that her father was going to the next county to sell some cattle, and wouldn't be back until after dark. Joshua said good-night to his wife and daughter before getting ready for an early bedtime.
"I wonder what happened to that mare Dad talked about," Emily said to her mother when they were clearing the table.
"Oh, I don't know. The mustangs have secrets humans will never know," answered Sarah.
But Emily wanted to know. The question nagged at her even as she fell asleep.
Emily was riding a horse through the mountains. She didn't know whether it was Sweetie or Wild Thing or some other horse. She was searching for something exciting, but this was unknown to her also. Suddenly, a gleaming palomino mare stepped out of the shadows. She seemed to be glowing with some inner light and stood out like a beacon in contrast with the black night. Emily knew this was what she was searching for. She sat looking in awe at the magnificent creature looking back at her with large, wild eyes. They both remained motionless, as though frozen. Then, wisps of fog abruptly started to curl around the mare, shrouding her from Emily's view. "No, no!" she cried out, reaching her arms desperately toward the mustang. A wail of disappointment tore from her throat. She woke up with her pillow damp from tears.
Emily dressed like a zombie, eyes staring into space, thinking about the palomino mare. She pulled on her jeans and headed outside to saddle Sweetie. After scrawling a short note that said "Gone riding, back for breakfast," she headed for the mountains.
For the first two hours, Emily saw no sign of life except for the occasional jackrabbit springing across the path and the hawks soaring high in the sky. It was eight o'clock, and she knew her mother was up by now and preparing breakfast, but Emily had no thought of turning back—not until she saw the mustang mare.
Another half-hour passed. Now her mother was probably getting a little worried. Emily continued to ride deeper into the mountains.
Here was a low canyon, surrounded by mountains on all sides, except for the narrow space between. A brook bubbled across it. Emily's heart leapt. This spot was the perfect home for a herd of mustangs!
She directed Sweetie to the brook and gave her a long drink of the cool, refreshing water. Looking down into the water, she gasped. Behind her, she could see the reflection of a palomino horse! Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned her head so she could glimpse the mare. Nervously, the mustang sidestepped, wary of this human drinking at her brook. The sunlight made her smooth golden coat shine, and her mane and tail were long from years of growing. The mare stared at her with her big, deep brown eyes. Looking at her under the clear blue sky, for one shining moment, Emily thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Suddenly, Emily heard the shrill neigh of a mustang break the silence. The mare heard her stallion too, and galloped away to him in the pass between two mountains.
"No!" Emily breathed. She sank to her knees and wept. "I'll never see the mare again," she cried. But she ached with a burning desire to have that mare. She needed her. She felt that if she couldn't have her, she would die of a broken heart. Wait—my dad is the best mustang catcher in the state! He could capture her for me, she thought happily.
She took Sweetie's reins and mounted. Kicking the mare's sides, she told her, "We're goin' home."
It was nine o'clock when they reached Emily's home. Sarah was waiting at the open door, frowning, and as soon as Emily walked toward her, her mother reached out and held her daughter to her, resting her cheek on Emily's brown hair. She kneeled down to look Emily over for injuries or stains and, finding only dusty soil on her jeans, stood up to smooth her hair back. She kissed her daughter's head.
"I was so worried about you," she said at last.
Emily looked at the ground and bit her lip, wishing she had checked the time. But it was worth it to see that mare! she reminded herself. She pushed the dirt into a little clump with the toe of her boot. "Yeah, well, I'm sorry. Next time I'll come home earlier."
"Good," Sarah responded firmly. "So go inside and wash your hands; the waffles are getting cold."
After breakfast, Emily told her mother about her ride while helping her wash dishes.
"And I saw the most gorgeous palomino mare—she must have been the one Dad was chasing yesterday I'd love to have her." Emily turned her green eyes on her mother appealingly, trying to let her mother know how much she wanted the mustang. Sarah studied her daughter searchingly for a long moment before turning her back and silently drying a plate, staring at it unseeingly as she ran the cloth over its smooth white surface again and again.
Emily gazed at her mother's back, forming a plan in her mind. If only her parents understood the desperate need she felt! Emily knew the palomino mare was the one from her dream, and that the beautiful mustang was meant to be hers. She loved riding Sweetie, but her mother's mare was placid and calm, not wild and spirited like the palomino. Besides, Sweetie was her mother's, and Emily was ready for a horse of her own to train, to ride and care for. If only the mare was hers . . .
Emily couldn't sleep that night, and lay on her bed staring at the ceiling, images of the mare—her mare—flitting across her mind. She turned toward the wall, looking out through the window screen into the moonlit night and listening to the insects chirping. A coyote howled somewhere in the mountains, dark shapes on the horizon blotting out the stars. His long, lonely call echoed through the still night, and Emily's heart ached with longing for the mustang mare. Where was she, at this very moment? Emily wondered. Was she safe? Was she, too, staring at the bright stars twinkling in the velvet sky and listening to the coyote's mournful howl?
Emily heard the front door creak slowly open, and footsteps coming from the kitchen. For a second Emily was alarmed, but then she smiled as she recognized her father's cough. He was back from the auction. Emily waited for a few minutes until her father climbed the stairs and peeked into her room, his silhouette blocking the light from the hallway
"I'm awake, Dad," Emily whispered.
Joshua nodded and walked into her room, bending over Emily's bed as he hugged her.
"Dad, I saw a beautiful mustang mare this morning, she . . ." Emily's rush of words was stopped when her father touched her lips lightly with his finger. "Tell me tomorrow," he whispered. Nodding reluctantly, Emily kissed him good-night. Joshua gently tucked a lock of her brown hair that had fallen onto her damp cheek behind her ear. Giving her one last kiss on the forehead, her father rose and walked out of the room, leaving Emily alone again, impatient for the morning to come so she could carry out her plan.
The next day, Emily jumped out of bed, eager to tell her father about the mare and try to convince her parents to get her the palomino. She hurried down the stairs to the kitchen, where she found them eating breakfast at the table. "Morning, dear," her mother greeted Emily.
"Did you sleep well?" her father asked.
Emily nodded, smiling with excitement. "Yep," she answered. She accepted an English muffin from the plate Sarah held out, and plopped down in a chair opposite her father.
"Dad, yesterday I went riding and I saw a gorgeous mustang mare . . ." Emily told her parents about the palomino mare she had seen, telling them about her rich color, her powerful conformation, her nice size. "I really want her," Emily finished. Glancing at her mother and father anxiously, wondering what they were thinking, Emily rushed on. "I was thinking, my birthday is pretty soon, so maybe you could get me the mare . . ."
Sarah averted her eyes down to the table, tracing the outlines of the flowers on the tablecloth with her finger. Sensing her husband's questioning gaze, she raised her head and stared back at Joshua, her face expressionless and her eyes unfathomable to Emily Joshua looked at his wife for a long moment, seeming to read in her face what Emily could not see. At last he turned back to his daughter. "We'll see," he answered, returning to his breakfast.
Disappointed and frustrated, Emily finished her English muffin and pushed her chair back from the table. "Well, I'm going for a ride on Sweetie," she announced, starting to walk away before her father's voice made her pause. "Oh no you aren't, young lady. Don't you remember what you have to do today?"
Emily scrunched up her face in thought. "Oh, yeah," she answered, shoulders sagging. Her battle for the palomino had made her completely forget that she was supposed to check the fences in the back pasture. Riding out there, mending any broken boards and returning to the house would take most of the day.
By the time she returned, sweaty and tired and with a splinter in her right palm, it was late afternoon. Sweetie traveled along the path to the barn at an easy, ambling walk, her head low and her tail swishing away the flies, enjoying the sunshine. Emily, however, was anxious to rest, cool off and then resume planning how she would acquire the mustang mare.
She was about to dismount when she heard voices near the circular paddock behind the barn. Wondering why her parents would be there, Emily quickly switched Sweetie's bridle for a halter, clipped her to the cross ties in the wash stall, and hurried toward the paddock.
Emily skidded to a stop before her father, who had been talking with her mother in the space between the barn and the house. Beyond that was the paddock, and Emily glanced at her parents' faces, glowing with anticipation and excitement, before straining to see over them. Joshua looked at his wife, and the corners of Sarah's mouth turned upward into a small smile.
"Happy birthday, Emily," Sarah whispered before she and Joshua moved aside so their daughter could see what was in the paddock.
Emily gasped as she glimpsed the form of the palomino mare standing in the middle of the paddock. From the trampled ground and the sweaty sides of the mare, she could tell there had been a struggle. Emily's heart soared at the thought of the palomino's—her palomino's, at last!—wild spirit. Fumbling to open the gate, Emily slowly made her way to the mustang's side, extending a trembling hand to stroke her horse's side, her head filled with plans and dreams for herself and the mare.
The mustang flinched at her touch, watching her with distrust. Only then did Emily really see the palomino mare.
The horse's once gleaming coat was muddy and damp with sweat. Her long mane and tail were tangled and stained and filled with burrs. Worst of all, her beautiful, intelligent, wild eyes were listless and defeated, and her golden head almost touched the ground.
Emily took a step back from the mustang, her green eyes startled and horrified. She shook her head slowly, trying to pretend that she was wrong, that the mare would learn to love her and her new home, that her spirit wasn't broken. After waiting for what seemed so long, Emily had her own horse, she had the palomino, she was happy—wasn't she?
A sob tore from her throat, and then another. Closing her eyes against the hot tears, against the harsh reality, Emily finally realized what she hadn't before—that her dream horse wasn't hers. The palomino mare might be hers in name, but her heart would always belong to the craggy mountains and the endless blue skies of the Nevada wilderness.
Was she too late to fix her mistake? Was the mustang's spirit broken forever?
Tears trickling down her cheeks, Emily's shoulders shook as she groped for the latch of the paddock gate. Throwing the gate open, she ran blindly toward the palomino, shouting and waving her arms. "Go! Go away! Stupid horse, you're getting what you wanted! GO!" Emily screamed.
Joshua, surprised and confused, took a step forward to stop his daughter, but was restrained by Sarah's hand on his shoulder. There was no astonishment or surprise on Sarah's face; she watched the scene unfolding before them as if she had seen it long before.
The mare raised her head, startled by the sobbing, shouting human behind her. Suddenly, she seemed to wake up, and with a delighted whicker she galloped out of the paddock, through the open gate toward the mountains.
A cool breeze blew strands of Emily's brown hair across her tear-stained face as she stood in the middle of the empty paddock, watching the mustang gallop away Her mother walked slowly up to her and enfolded her in a hug that was surprisingly strong. Sarah gazed at her daughter with not only tears but pride in her eyes, and her tiny, sad smile broadened as the two watched the mare pause in her flight for freedom, one forehoof raised. Flaring her nostrils, coat gleaming gold, the palomino tossed her head and emitted a shrill whinny of joy, announcing her return to the herd. Snowy white mane and tail billowing out behind her, the mare galloped into the distance, forever free.