The chilly wind blew up spirals of dry leaves, but the sun still shone merrily. The faded blue paint was peeling off the porch on the old farmhouse. A short, red-haired girl lay on the porch with her chin propped in her hands. Stretched out on the steps was another girl, with brown hair. They were both five, but there the resemblance ended. Sarah was over a head taller than Elizabeth. Her short, light brown hair blew around her head in the breeze. Her eyes were also brown, the color of chocolate. Elizabeth, the redhead, had energetic, dancing, bright green eyes that mirrored her personality. Both had their attention fixed on the toy horse Sarah was holding. It was bright orange, with a blue mane and tail.
"His name's Flaming Sunset," Sarah explained. "I just got him."
Elizabeth nodded. The two girls were extremely close friends, tied together by their love of horses. Sarah had recently moved into the house next to Elizabeth's. They were already inseparable, spending their afternoons wandering about the farm down the road from their houses. Their favorite place was, of course, the horse barn. As soon as they had finished admiring Sarah's new toy, they set off to feed carrots to the horses, with Elizabeth's large black dog trailing at their heels.
The stars intently watched the scene below from their perch in the velvet-blue night sky. At Fairweather Horse Farm a small crowd had gathered around one stall. Inside stood a small bay horse. The dim light from the dusty bulb overhead was enough to show that his coat was flaming red. His silky black mane streamed from his arched neck, and his black tail billowed out behind him like a cloak. The star on his face seemed to shine brighter than the electric lights. His feet rustled in the thick straw as he inched forward to inspect his visitors. Holding the opened door in one hand with a carrot outstretched in the other was a smiling, red-haired ten-year-old girl.
"Wow, Elizabeth, he's really pretty."
"What's his name?"
"How old is he?"
"Where'd you get him?"
"Can I pet him?"
"Yeah, me too?"
Questions poured down on Elizabeth. Suddenly the horse reached forward and took the carrot from her hand. He was starting to relax.
"OK, you can come in," she agreed. As half of her Pony Club rushed into the stall, Elizabeth noticed that Sarah was hanging back. Elizabeth felt a sharp stab of guilt. She hadn't talked about a thing in school except Surprise, that horse that lived up to his name on her tenth birthday. She hadn't had any time for her friend.
"Hey, Sarah!" she called. "I have another carrot in my pocket. Want to give it to him?"
Sarah opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Finally she nodded her head weakly, gave a shaky smile, and headed into the stall.
"And now on course is number 17, Elizabeth Green." As she entered the ring Elizabeth could feel the crowd's eyes on her. However, there was one pair whose expression she was unaware of. The owner of those eyes looked upon Elizabeth as a rival who would threaten her quest for the '96 Regional Pony Club Jumper Cup. The owner of those eyes realized that Elizabeth would likely win. The owner of those eyes used to be Elizabeth's best friend. They belonged to Sarah. Sarah sat on top of her chunky gray gelding looking outwardly calm, while her boyfriend Pete dusted one of her boots and her friend Margaret the other. Margaret was wearing a belly-short tank top, bell-bottom jeans, two-inch platform sandals, and an unhappy expression.
"It's too dusty here, Sarah," she whined. Sarah ignored her and turned to Pete, who had begun talking.
"I don't know, Sarah, she looks pretty good," he warned.
"In this class looks don't count, it's speed."
"I understand that, but look how fast she's going."
Elizabeth was dashing through the ring on the jumper she had trained herself: the little bay Surprise. Though he was barely larger than a pony, he soared over the jump as though he was winged. This horse and rider would probably win.
"Why don't you go check your course?" Pete suggested.
"I know my course," Sarah replied through clenched teeth.
"Well, now it's your turn to go in," he said.
When she exited the ring again Sarah's scowl was larger than before. She knew that she had lost the Cup. Since she had finished her course Elizabeth's Pony Club friends had been helping her cool out her horse, and a friend from school brought her a soda.
The ringmaster's voice suddenly sounded out: "Would the following contestants please enter the ring in the order your number is called. 17, 163, 84, 22."
Sarah tried not to hear the excited cries coming from Elizabeth and her friends. She tried not to see the tricolor ribbon pinned on Surprise's bridle, or the gleaming silver trophy Elizabeth held. As she exited the ring she stuffed the yellow third-place ribbon in her pocket, embarrassed to be seen with it. Right then and there she vowed to never be friends with Elizabeth again.
"Nice job," Pete congratulated. Sarah ignored him and whiny Margaret too. She wanted to be alone.
Elizabeth sat on her tack box looking at her collection of trophies. Finally her gaze rested on her first Pony Club Jumper Cup. She remembered how excited she had felt when her number was called. She then turned her eyes toward Surprise. He was three years older than he had been when they won that Cup, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. His coat still glistened, his neck still arched, and his ears still pricked just as much as they had that afternoon. Surprise was all tacked up and ready.
It was an Indian summer October afternoon. The sun smiled down, warming the earth. A perfect day for a trail ride. Elizabeth was sorry she had no one to share it with. Suddenly a car door slammed. Surprise, who had been dozing, jerked his head up and spun around. Elizabeth, also startled, turned quickly. A tall, brown-haired figure was striding up the barn aisle. Elizabeth blinked: it was Sarah. Elizabeth hadn't seen her at the barn for more than two years. Yet here she was, in riding clothes, looking back at her and smiling. Elizabeth noticed that she clutched something tightly in her hand.
"Hi, Elizabeth," the taller girl said. Elizabeth stared. Sarah had barely said a word to her since sixth grade.
"Elizabeth, we're moving and I was packing my boxes and I found this at the back of my closet and I thought you'd like to see." This was all said very quickly, in one breath, then Sarah extended her arm and opened her hand, very slowly. When Elizabeth saw what was there she gasped. Lying in Sarah's palm was a small plastic horse. Though faded and scratched its coat was still clearly orange, and the dirty, knotted mane and tail a bright blue.
"It's . . ." began Elizabeth.
". . . Flaming Sunset," finished Sarah.
"I was about to take a trail ride. Why don't you tack up Bear and come out with me?" Elizabeth suggested, gesturing to the stall of the gray gelding that Sarah used to ride. "And, I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Sarah answered. "You didn't do anything wrong. It was me."
"Sarah," Elizabeth said, "if we get to the top of Friendship Mountain soon enough we'll be able to watch the sunset."
The chilly wind blew up spirals of dry leaves, but Elizabeth felt warm inside.
Two friends on horseback climbed a steep mountainside. Though no words were spoken, there were radiant smiles on both girls' faces. Surrounded by the dying day, they rode up into a sunset the color of a very special old toy horse.