(I dreamed this just before daybreak today. No idea where it came from or why, but I wanted to write it down before the story, and the sensation with which it left me, are both gone.)
The three horses were always together. They ran in the green fields in summer, huddled for warmth in winter, rested in new grass in spring and rustled the fall leaves with their gallops. One was bay, with a golden coat and dark chestnut mane; one was white with mottled gray markings on its back and the third was deep black with a sharp white blaze on its face.
At feeding time the three horses walked together to the barn, the black always leading the way. Second came the white, and the bay brought up the rear, always looking to each side as if protecting his friends.
Perhaps horses do not think like humans; perhaps a horse protects only itself and does not consider the welfare of other horses but it would be difficult to believe that if one watched these three. They groomed each other, sheltered each other from rain, rubbed noses often. Yes, I think they must have been friends.
Their pasture was green and rich with good grass and clover. The water trough was always clean and well filled. So what would tempt a horse to leave such a place? I do not know the answer to that. All I can tell you is that one day they discovered a hole in the fence. A tree had fallen in a storm during the night, smashing a fencepost and leaving the fence broken and on the ground. The three horses nosed the tree, saw the gap in the broken wire, and walked through.
Where did they want to go? They knew nothing of what was beyond their pasture except for the familiar trails they followed when riders were on their backs. So from habit, I suppose, they sauntered toward a trail and single file walked along its familiar course. They reached a road crossing and with no hand to tell them to hold up for traffic they stepped onto the pavement.
A tractor trailer roared past with its brakes squealing, the driver white-faced at the wheel. Three horses reared and wheeled around in the road, then bolted off as fast as their legs could carry them. The truck straightened and continued up the road, the driver speaking rapidly into his radio.
The fright and panic passed and the horses slowed to a walk. At a stream they stopped for a long drink. This was unknown territory; they had never been off the trails before. For a few minutes they milled about, not sure what to do or where to go. Eventually they set off again, crossing the stream and entering a deep forest. The trees arched overhead and there were strange noises. Chirping, scuffling woods creatures kept out of sight but the horses knew they were being watched. They whinnied uneasily and were glad to come out of the woods into open fields.
At the end of the field was a strange sign, yellow and black in a cross shape. The horses did not know what a railroad sign was but the railbed looked something like a trail and so they turned and began walking up the tracks. The going was easy with gravel underfoot and the crossties at regular intervals. The horses looked with interest at the houses and sheds on either side of the track but continued on their way.
A sudden loud whistle filled the air and the ground began to shake. The black horse reared up and began to run up the track. The other two horses followed, their ears laid back against their heads in fright. Their eyes rolled back as if to see what terrible thing was chasing them. The black wheeled to face his followers—and his hoof caught in the gap between two rails.
He screamed. There is no other word for it. The sound was horrific and people appeared suddenly out of the houses nearby. Men rushed to the tracks, frightening the white and the bay. The two horses plunged off the tracks and into a fence lining the side. Two men quickly caught their bridles and other men helped them subdue the frantic horses and lead them away.
But on the tracks, the black allowed no one near. He struck out with his hoofs and teeth as one man after another attempted to get close and free his foot. He did not know they wanted to help; all the black knew was that he was in pain, he was trapped and strangers were rushing at him with waving arms and shouts. The ground shook harder than ever and again came the terrifying scream of the approaching train’s whistle.
And then a child appeared, walking out of the tangle of men and straight toward the thrashing horse. “Hoo boy,” the child crooned. The horse stopped and looked at the child. Eye met eye; the men stood still and watched.
“Hoo boy. Let me see that foot.” The child bent down and touched the horse’s leg. The horse quivered but did not move. Slowly the child worked the hoof back and forth, back and forth as the wail of the whistle and the thunder of the approaching train filled the air. A woman screamed. The horse reared; his hoof was free. He bolted to the opposite side of the tracks with the child clinging to his leg.
The men waited impatiently for the train to pass. When the last car rumbled pass they rushed onto the tracks and their mouths dropped open in astonishment. The horse was standing quietly by the opposite fence while the child stroked his heaving side and murmured. The men hurried across the tracks but when they reached the horse the child was gone.
“Whose child was that? Was he yours? Where did he go?”
“I thought it was your girl! Wasn’t mine. He has to be around here somewhere.”
“Not mine. He didn't run by me.”
“Not my kid. Mine are bigger than that little one was.”
The men looked at each other, then began to search.
Two days later the three horses were once again in their comfortable pasture. The fence was repaired, the water trough was full and the grass and clover sweet and rich. They groomed each other and rested together in the shade of the oak trees. In the evening they walked single file to the barn for feeding time, but now the bay leads the way and the black, with a slight limp, brings up the rear.
No one ever saw the child again.
Sometimes the black horse looks over his shoulder, watching and listening, as the far-off train whistle sounds.
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.