“Carmen!” Dad’s voice rang, crisp with excitement. “Come look what came in today!” Half-heartedly, I swung off the couch and walked heavily to the door. I groaned as I stepped out of the air-conditioning into the stifling summer heat. I jogged to the corral where Dad stood and leaned on the fence next to him. I followed to where his finger pointed and saw what all the commotion was about. It was a huge black stallion, sides lathered in sweat. He stood silently in a corner of the paddock. Other than the occasional flick of his tail to ward off pesky flies, he was still.
“Isn’t he a beauty,” Dad sighed, leaning over the fence rail. I nodded and leaned forward too, holding out my palm.
“C’mere boy, lemme get a good look at you,” I called. He whipped his head toward me, eyes wide and alert. He started a quick trot toward me.
“Carmen, NO!!” shouted Dad, yanking me to the ground. Terrified, I watched as the horse let into a wild gallop and smashed into the fence. He reared, hooves flailing, and cantered back to his corner, where he resumed whisking flies.
But his image was stuck in my mind. The fire in his eyes! His nostrils had been flared so wide that I could almost picture smoke coming out of them like some sort of dragon-horse.
That got me thinking. Dragon-horse . . . Horse-dragon .. . “Draco,” I whispered, hoisting myself up.
“What?” Dad asked.
“Draco,” I said louder. “His name’s Draco.”
Dad chuckled and said, “Well, it’s time I got your Draco into his stall.” He swung a halter over his shoulder and headed slowly toward Draco, murmuring soft words.
Finally, he got close enough to place a hand on his quivering side. Suddenly, Draco reared, sending Dad sprawling on the ground. He galloped madly around the pasture as Dad escaped.
“Th-that horse,” he gasped, “is a live one!”
Later that night, I came out to the pasture with some carrots and a halter. There was Draco, silently brooding in his corner. I leapt deftly over the fence and stood still. He regarded me warily, but lost interest as I stood still. I put the carrots in my palm and held them out to him.
As we stood in the fading orange sunset, my mind began to wander. Before I knew it, I felt warm breath on my fingertips. Draco had come for the carrots. As he crunched, I slowly placed a hand on his forelock. He brought his eyes up to meet mine, and instantly I felt a trust form between us.
Carefully, I slid the halter over his head and led him to the stalls. He stomped his foot on the wooden floor, shuffled through the hay, and gave a defeated sigh. I patted his side and whispered, “Spirit, boy, spirit.”
* * *
“I don’t know how you do it, Carmen!” Dad shook his head in wonder as I rode Draco bareback around the paddock. I had spent a lot of time with the horse and he had learned very quickly. I had a feeling that perhaps he had belonged to one of our neighbors, and was a runaway.
As it became clear that I could handle him in the paddock, I decided to run him outside on the prairie. I chose a strong bridle and led him out, but his confusion was clear when I began to trot him toward the open prairie. But with every step away I could feel his mind clearing and his muscles coiled to readiness.
Once we were out from the ranch, I let the reins go slack. He stopped completely for a moment before he realized what I was doing. How he flew! And for once, I saw the world through Draco’s eyes.
The wind rippled the Indian grass, looking like the waves of an ocean. The sweet scent of the prairie rose wafted on a light breeze. And there was nothing to do but run forever, racing the shadow of the hawk to the end of eternity.
I leaned eagerly against his neck, wind whipping my face, and forgot everything . . . Suddenly, a picture of the ranch flashed across my mind. We were far from home, now. I pulled the reins, but he strained forward. As I struggled to pull back, he fought for his head.
In a last effort, I called softly, “Draco, we have to go home.” I gulped. “Well, my home, anyway. I can see it’s not yours, and never will be.” He slowed to a trot, then a walk. I turned him slowly toward the ranch.
A change came over him the next day. His eyes had a glazed-over look; their old fire was gone. He barely acknowledged me, just kept his eyes on the window opened to the prairie.
* * *
The next day, he Stopped eating. Worriedly; Dad called the vet, but I knew he wouldn’t find anything wrong. Draco was dying of a broken spirit. I went to talk to Dad.
“No, no, absolutely not!” Dad said.
“But Dad!!” I cried.
“Carmen, no! It is simply out of the question! Those horses are income for you, me and your mother! We are not letting him go!”
I turned around to the door, tears in my eyes, when he said, “Carmen, wait.” I turned halfway. “I forbid you to go into Draco’s stall until after he’s sold.”
I turned to stare, not believing what I heard. “I hate you!” I screamed. “I hate you, I hate you!” I tore down the hallway, slamming and locking my door.
A few seconds later, Dad was pounding on it, yelling, “Carmen, open the door this instant! Carmen!”
I ignored him, turned my stereo on full blast, and fell into a troubled sleep.
A few hours later, I woke to the rumbling of an empty stomach. I crept down the dark hallway into the kitchen and helped myself to last night’s cold spaghetti leftovers. As I sat thinking in the dim kitchen, I knew what I had to do.
The stable door creaked open louder than I had meant for it to. Still, the only sounds were the muffled snores of horses. I made my way down the stalls, and stopped at Draco’s.
He was wide awake, his eyes sparkling and alert. He gave a high-pitched whinny that seemed to say, “What took you so long?”
I slipped a halter on him as he nuzzled my shoulder. I led him out into the night and mounted, giving him a hard kick. He shot past the stables, the pastures, his prison, till there was nothing but open space.
The night surrounded us, but it wasn’t a dark sort of night. The full moon turned her pale face toward us, and thousands of stars twinkled merrily. The prairie grass was silhouetted black against the swirling purple sky, and an eagle flew overhead, something grasped in its talons.
Draco simply ran. It was so natural, so beautiful. His feet seemed to hardly touch the ground. He blended in perfectly as though he had never been gone. I just wanted him to run, run forever. To escape the buildings and fences that confined him from this. But seemingly, he had more sense than I.
Eventually, he slowed to a walk, then stopped. I knew what he meant. I slid from his back and held tight to his halter. His eyes met mine, like they had that night long ago in the pastures, and again I felt that bond of trust and love, but now, also of thanks.
I buried my face in his mane and shed my tears. “I’ll miss you, Draco,” I whispered, slipping his halter off.
He stood still, waiting. “Get out of here!” I hollered, laughing through my tears. He shot off, but turned to circle me before running toward the horizon. At the top of a grassy hill, he paused and turned.
Just then the fiery sun peeked from behind the grass. It made the ground look like molten gold, and a black horse, not my Draco any longer, stood silhouetted against the sun.
He reared, mane and tail whipping, before he turned and disappeared. I turned away, awed by the wonder I had just seen, and headed home. I knew I had done the right thing.