It was one of the first warm days of spring at the Blackshears' farmstead. It had been a long and dreary winter this year and, for a while, it seemed like the sun would keep on hiding behind the clouds forever. When it finally started shining again, the woods around the property erupted with a green so lush it almost hurt the eyes.
Now, the walls of the old house gleamed ocher in the late afternoon light, cut against the bright green that embraced them on either side.
Winter had left its mark on the old facade, wedging in some more cracks and peeling off the paint at the edges. The once‑beautiful wrought iron balcony balustrade hung bare. The dark wood panels that adorned its many frames had rotted away a few years ago and rust boils had blossomed all through the length of the opaque dark metal.
In contrast, the roof of bright corrugated aluminum sheets covering the stables gleamed in the sunlight, stained only by the remains of autumn leaves gathered in brown heaps along its length and in the gutters.
Obstacles lay scattered in the same way down in the large gray sand school that spread in front of the house. The repetitive hits of horses' hooves had scarred many of the rails, shaving the paint down to the raw wood. Like tree rings, the bared layers of color now mercilessly showed the age of each pole.
Everything lay silent under the afternoon sun. Even the shelters of the farm animals looked deserted. The only thing moving nearby was a horse.
His name was Acorn, a handsome five-year-old appaloosa, curious and intelligent. His coat was a deep and shaded bay with a bright-white dotted blanket over his hips and buttocks. His wet, dark eyes were searching the place, eagerly but cautiously looking for something or someone.
His hooves clip-clopped on the concrete pavement in front of the stables. The other horses stared at him with a mix of envy and curiosity. Apparently, only Acorn had been granted the luxury of walking around on his own. Many of the older horses didn't seem too pleased by such blatant favoritism toward the youngster. Others, maybe more lenient or less unhappy about spending most of their time in a box, looked like they had made peace with such state of affairs and were just asking themselves what was going on.
Sandwiched between the stables and two wooden sheds, Acorn advanced warily. The rickety structures on his right bore the signs of a hasty construction and stood crooked on the bare earth. A thin skeleton of iron reddened by rust held them up, while wood planks of uneven lengths came together to form approximate walls.
Through the many slits between the planks of the first shed, Acorn made out dark, vague shapes. His ears twitched as he listened intently, but he only heard the whispers of straw shifting and the sighs of sheep dozing off. A few feet farther, he stretched his ears again. From the second shed resounded a wet, spooky snort. Acorn shied away as he recognized the presence of Brunga, the Blackshears' dangerously unpredictable bull.
In his preoccupation to get as far away as possible from him, Acorn didn't realize he had stepped within bite's length of the other horses. Melinda, an old, white mare, bared her teeth and snapped at him. Acorn wriggled away just in time. He glowered at her, pulled his ears back and slid away.
Meanwhile, the object of Acorn's search was running stealthily toward a drinking trough in the paddock. His name was Jamie and he was the only son of the Blackshears--a skinny, bright eleven-year-old with restless green eyes. As he ran at the top of his lungs, the patch on his faded jeans flapped in the wind and his shapeless T-shirt rippled like a sail. His clothes looked well past their prime and not exactly his size. They were in fact hand-me-downs from his better-off cousins, but he didn't care, because his true joys were the outdoors and animals. One animal in particular was dear to him above all others: his horse Acorn--the very bay horse who was now intently looking for him, unaware of what he was scheming.
Jamie had just had a marvelous idea for a prank against Acorn that required skill and daring and he was beside himself to make it happen as soon as possible. Ten minutes before, when his brain had positively exploded with delight, he had been behind the house climbing a tree while Acorn watched him perplexed or possibly envious. On a hunch, he had plunged his hand in his pocket and got hold of his Menthos. Since Acorn loved them, he had immediately scattered a handful onto the ground as a diversion. Right after Acorn had lunged for them, he had jumped down and sneaked away, heading like a thunderbolt toward the paddock.
Now it was time to do justice to his brilliant idea. He reached the edge of the paddock and stopped in front of a trough filled with water and dead leaves that lay in the shade of tall black locust trees. He cast a quick glance back and his wild, ash-brown hair swung back with him. Seeing Acorn hadn't spotted him, he sat down on the brim of the trough. He hesitated a second, then he propped himself up and sank his feet into the water. A chilling stream gushed through the holes in his shoes' soles and soaked his socks almost instantly. Goose bumps ran from his legs all the way up to his arms and he shivered, breathing quickly--it was just May after all and the trough stood all day in the shade. There was no time to waste on second thoughts. Jamie willed himself to withstand the cold and slowly lowered his body into the trough. He winced as the chilly water licked the whole length of his back, shooting prickling shivers up to his ears, but he didn't make any sudden movement. He didn't want to spill any water and give away his whereabouts. His heart was beating fast. It was awesome!
He took two big breaths, pinched his nose shut between his fingers and sank his head underwater, then he pressed his feet and hands against the inner walls of the trough to keep himself from floating up. Inside this shell of wood and water, the calm was eerie, even if the cold was so intense that it felt like entombing yourself in ice. Nevertheless, Jamie felt his mind relax--it was cozy in there. He pondered that perhaps that's how Acorn had felt in his mom's belly--apart from the cold, of course. Above him, through the settling water, the tree branches swayed dreamily in the breeze. Cast against the bright sky, they looked like giant feelers carefully searching the air.
Jamie stretched his ears, listening for any signs of Acorn approaching. Holding his breath underwater, still as a statue, he looked like a weird submarine stick-bug ready to pounce. His ash-brown hair fanned out around his face like wild thoughts, while his grass-green eyes gleamed with anticipation. His hiding spot was perfect! Acorn would never think of that. He really wanted to burst into an evil chuckle, but kept himself in check--he didn't want to blow his cover.
A sliver of froth drifted lazily on the surface of the water. Jamie wondered whether it was Acorn's saliva or the sheep's and he realized that he was probably lying in a tub of spit. He grinned, thinking himself daring, even though he knew that most kids at school would likely consider him disgusting. Well, who cared what they thought; they didn't know anything about adventure. Spit you just washed away, but adventure staid for the rest of your life!
A constricting sensation, as of a belt tightening steadily around his chest, made his head lighter. His lungs started screaming for air, but he was resolved to stay put. He fidgeted at the bottom of the trough, worried that Acorn wouldn't show up. Where the heck was that knucklehead? What if he didn't turn up and ruined his awesome ambush?
A wave of fretting panic seized him. Maybe he should have left a string of Menthos leading to the trough. Man! That's exactly what he should have done! Why hadn't he thought about that before? Why would Acorn come straight into the paddock? He could easily walk into the school instead. He hadn't planned this thing properly--that was going to be his downfall!
Dark thoughts of failure clouded his brain as the air in his lungs quickly expired. He reckoned he had no more than a dozen seconds left in him, then he'd have to take a breath or die in his watery tomb. Another five seconds elapsed. It was over...
Presently, a shadow draped across the trough. The temperature dropped a couple of degrees. Jamie wondered how on Earth he could feel colder than he already was, but apparently he could. The shadow moved in a little closer. He saw the darkness break up at the fringes, drawing the rough outline of a mane. Excitement fired through his skin--Acorn had come at last! He let go of his supports and kicked hard toward the surface.
He exploded out of the water in a huge splash, flailing his arms like a madman, roaring, "Raaaaugh!!"
Acorn shied back, flaring his nostrils in shock.
"Got you! I got you!" Jamie taunted. "Spoooky!"
Acorn bared his teeth and snapped at him, outraged.
Jamie plunged his hand into the frigid water and splashed him treacherously.
Acorn let out a grunt and bucked away, kicking and neighing. He shook his head around to show his disapproval for the scandalous treatment.
Jamie watched him with satisfaction, overjoyed by the result of his ambush. Best! Prank! Ever! He jumped out of the trough and romped around the paddock.
With his tail high, Acorn trotted about jerkily, wheeling his head in quick bursts, flaring his nostrils noisily at anything he laid his eyes on, as if purposefully looking for something else to get scared by. It seemed like he was actually enjoying the rush of adrenaline running wild in his veins. Jamie ran beside him, roaring and laughing, his sneakers squeaking and sloshing loudly.
At the ruckus, a few sheep poked their heads out of their shed, while the horses in the stables pricked up their ears, wondering what it was all about.
Acorn and Jamie romped around for a few more minutes, then another mischievous idea lit up Jamie's brain like a firecracker. He stopped dead in his tracks and raised his hand, splashing and dripping water everywhere.
Acorn raised his ears to full attention, an expectant expression widening his crazed eyes.
"To the pen!" Jamie shouted triumphantly.
--To be continued...
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