Lily Jenson sat up with a jerk as her alarm went off. "No person in their right mind gets up at 6:00 in the morning on vacation,” she muttered as she dressed. Lily and her parents were visiting her Uncle Ben on his horse ranch in Nevada for a month. Yesterday her uncle had shown her a two year old injured mustang filly he had adopted from BLM. But later she had overheard her parents agreeing that she shouldn’t go near the horse. She knew they still worried that something would happen to get her hurt again. Three years ago Lily and her cousin had gotten in a car accident. Her cousin had been unharmed, but Lily’s right knee had been crushed. Now a metal knee replacement allowed her to walk, with a limp, but Lily was afraid she would never be able to ride again.
She had never had a horse of her own, but her parents had paid for riding lessons for years before the accident. Lily had tried riding again several months after the accident, but it had been so painful that her parents had forced her to stop. She doubted they would ever let her ride again, but even worse, she doubted that she could still do it.
But staying at Uncle Ben’s ranch for a month would give her a chance to try riding again. I’m fifteen years old, she thought to herself. I can handle riding again.
Lily wanted to get out and see the horse before her parents woke up. Uncle Ben would already be gone checking the fence line by now, and hopefully he wouldn’t get back too soon.
She quietly walked downstairs and put on her shoes and baseball cap at the door. She slipped outside and walked over to the round pen that held the filly.
Peering through the slats, Lily saw the mustang staring back at her. The filly was beautiful. Her sorrel coat glowed in the early morning sunshine, and a white star shone on her forehead. Lily saw a single white sock on her front right leg, but the leg was swollen and covered in dried blood.
The filly stared back at her and tossed her head, as if to say, What are you looking at? She looked nervous. Uncle Ben had tossed in some hay, but it lay untouched on the ground.
Lily stepped up to the fence. A sudden gust of wind caught her baseball cap and tossed it between the bars into the round pen. The filly flung herself away from it as if it were alive. Lily gasped as the filly reared and pawed at the sky. She landed hard on her injured leg and it buckled beneath her.
Lily clenched her jaw and started climbing the fence. She had to get that hat! She cleared the top and jumped to the inside. She winced as pain shot through her knee, but stayed on her feet. The filly was running wildly around the pen, and blood started to flow again from her injured leg. Lily stumbled forward and snatched her hat, but the mustang kept running.
Her mind raced, trying to think of a way to get her to stop. "Easy, girl. You’re okay,” Lily soothed, taking a tentative step towards her. The filly ran faster, and Lily desperately tried a different approach. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the round pen, trying to show she wasn’t a threat, and began talking in soothing tones.
"You’re alright. Don’t be afraid; I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry I frightened you, but it’s okay now.” The filly stopped running, but continued to prance behind Lily’s back. Lily spoke to her quietly until the filly stood still.
"There’s my pretty girl. You’re safe now. I have to go before my parents wake up.” Ever so slowly, Lily stood and climbed out of the pen. Only when Lily reached the porch did she look back. The filly stood like a statue, ears pricked forward, watching her.
Every morning after that Lily woke early and went out to see the filly. After a week of speaking to her from the outside, Lily gathered her courage to enter the round pen again. She crooned to the filly for several minutes before slowly climbing inside.
Just like before, she sat cross-legged in the dirt. Lily watched the filly as she trotted the perimeter of the pen. The filly watched her warily, judging if she was a threat or not.
"I understand you,” Lily said softly. "You and I are the same. We want the same thing.” The filly stopped pacing behind her. Lily swallowed hard, she was so nervous that this little filly wouldn’t accept her.
"We both want to fly,” she said softly. "You want to run free, free to fly across the desert like you’ve done all your life.” Lily heard the filly take a step towards her back.
"I’ve only been on a galloping horse once, but I felt like I was flying. My parents won’t let me fly anymore, ever since the accident they’ve been afraid that I’ll get hurt.” The filly took another step.
"You’re hurt too, but you can heal.” The filly inched forward until she stood right behind her, so close that Lily could feel the filly’s breath on the back of her neck. "I promise,” Lily began, as inch by inch she slowly turned herself to face the filly, "I promise to let you fly, pretty girl.”
Lily, still sitting on the dirt in the round pen, didn’t dare move at first to touch the velvety nose extended towards her. Slowly, she reached out her hand, and the filly nuzzled it softly with her nose. Hardly breathing, Lily smiled and gently stroked the filly’s nose.
Lily exited the round pen and froze. Uncle Ben stood there watching her. He jerked his head towards the barn. "Let’s talk.”
Heart pounding in her chest, she followed him into the barn.
"Careful now,” Uncle Ben warned as Lily crouched in front of the mustang’s injured leg. Lily couldn’t help smiling to herself. She had told him everything, expecting the worst. But he grabbed his first aid kit and led her back to the pen. He was currently giving her instructions from the outside as she cared for the filly’s leg. They had both agreed to wait to tell her parents.
When Lily finished cleaning and wrapping the wound, she exited the corral and walked with him back to the house. "Good job.” He smiled down at her. "I’ll see you at 5:30 tomorrow morning.”
Every morning Ben and Lily worked with the filly. Soon Lily chose a name for her, a Hawaiian name.
Ku’u Lei, My Beloved.
Uncle Ben taught Lily how to break Lei to a halter, and then to a bridle. They helped her grow accustomed to touch, first Lily’s, and then his. Her leg healed quickly, and the bond between Lei and Lily strengthened every day.
"What about a saddle?” Lily asked one morning.
Uncle Ben pursed his lips. Finally he said, "I’ll have to get your parents’ permission before I can let you ride her.”
Lily stiffened; she knew what their answer would be.
At midnight, Lily gave up trying to sleep and got dressed. She wanted to see Lei.
She walked outside and into the round pen, leaving the gate ajar. Lei greeted her with a nicker. "Hey, baby.” Lily wrapped her arms around Lei’s neck. "Uncle Ben is going to tell my parents about us tomorrow. They aren’t going to let me ride you.” Lily backed up a step and ran her hands over Lei’s back. "But I made you a promise, and I’m going to keep it.”
Lily took a deep breath and vaulted onto Lei’s back. The sorrel filly snorted and wheeled around in a circle, and then stood still.
She used her legs to guide Lei through the gate. The filly snorted and paused uncertainly. Lily leaned low over Lei’s neck and tightened her legs around her horse. "Fly, baby, fly!”
Lei leapt forward and galloped for the range. Pain coursed through Lily’s knee but she didn’t care. They were flying, and Lily’s heart sang. Lei galloped across the moonlit desert, whipping past sagebrush with blurring speed. Lily thought her heart would burst with happiness as she buried her face in Lei’s mane.
By sunrise she and Lei were heading back for the ranch. When Lei trotted into the ranch yard her parents came out of the house and walked towards her.
"Ben told us about you and Lei.” Her mom said softly.
Lily held her breath and waited. Her dad stroked Lei’s sweating neck thoughtfully. "Of course we couldn’t take her back with us, but for a while now we’ve been considering moving out here.” Her dad paused as Lily’s face broke into a grin. "What do you think?”
Lily leaned forward and hugged Ku’u Lei’s neck. "Sounds perfect.”
Read all ten finalists' entries from HorseChannel's 2013 Fiction Contest >>