The yellow turn sign pointed to a sharp left.
In the darkness, Dan pressed on the brakes, slowing the car as he followed the turn in the road. Trees loomed high on either side, making the black asphalt appear to be an endless, curving path disappearing into the distance up ahead.
"I can't see a thing," said Tina, peering out into the darkness from her passenger window. "How on earth are we going to find this horse?"
"He has to be somewhere out here. There really is no other way for him to go," said Dan.
They continued along in silence, hoping to spot the wayward horse before it got hit by a car.
The afternoon had started just as any other - Tina had headed to the barn to help out with chores before her riding lesson. People were already in the riding ring, warming up for the six o'clock lesson, when there was a loud scream.
Before anyone had a chance to acknowledge the source of the sound, a chestnut horse streaked by at a full gallop, running full-tilt up the driveway and out onto the road. Sparks flew as the horse's feet scrambled to take hold of the asphalt. The rank smell of burning hoof wall filled the air.
People who had been nearby rushed to help the rider, who was now lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the ring. Finishing up the stall she was cleaning, Tina stepped outside the barn to get a better look.
There was an air of concern as the rider seemed to be completely immobile. Someone was already on her cell phone, presumably phoning for the ambulance. Several people were at the rider's side assessing the situation. It seemed that there were plenty of people willing to help if needed.
Tina strained to look up the driveway again. There was no sign of the horse. She was well aware that there were miles and miles of fenced fields in both directions. Where would the horse go, she wondered? Most horses would head back to the herd, but there was no way for the chestnut to return to the pasture, thanks to the long fenced crop fields that surrounded the barn property.
That was when Dan had driven up to the barn doors.
"Hop in," he'd said after rolling the passenger window side down so she could hear him. "Let's go find that horse." Terry ran to the tack room to grab a lead rope and halter, and they were off.
So there they were, still driving around, through first dusk as the sun started going down, and now in full pitch blackness. Where could the horse have gone?
A quick call to the barn had confirmed that the horse had not returned. It would have been difficult to miss him as he would have had to pass the car on the way back.
So they drove slowly onward, squinting eyes trying to pierce through the darkness.
Another turn was completed when Tina noticed a darker, almost imperceptible shadow in the dense gloom around them.
"Stop! Look over there," she pointed. As there was no other traffic anywhere to be seen, Dan coasted until the wheels stopped turning. Sure enough, to the right side of the road, there was a bulky blackness near the side of the road. It looked like somewhat of a misfit in front of the tall tree trunks that rose skyward. It didn't move.
"It's hard to tell what that is," said Dan, although he was already opening the door to get out of the car. Another few feet and they were sure it was the horse. However, his massive form was bent over into an odd shape.
Now they could hear his breath heaving his lungs from side to side. It was difficult to distinguish his expression because his neck was bent into a tight curl and his legs seemed to be tied at an awkward angle.
"He's wrapped up in his reins," said Tina, finally understanding why he was motionless. She edged close enough to be able to see him better. Even in the dark, she could see that his eyes were wide with fright and stress. His neck was tight and quivering from muscle tension. The sweat was dripping off him in small rivulets to the ground.
Carefully and as calmly as possible, Dan approached the horse from the near side. The horse's eyes followed him as he stepped close enough to be able to reach the reins.
The reins were so taut that it would be impossible to unwind them off the legs.
"I have to get the knife," said Dan.
"OK I'll stay here with him," said Tina, reaching out to pat the horse's massive side to calm him a little. It would be impossible to put the halter on in this position, so she reached gently for the reins on his left side. The chestnut let out a short grunting sound, trying to take in more breath. It was obvious that he was struggling to maintain this unnatural posture. His tension was palpable. Tina felt his anxiety as if it were her own.
When Dan returned with the knife, she told him, "Be really careful. I have a feeling he might explode when he gets his legs free."
Dan reached down, watchful that his head was out of the way of possibly flying hooves. Tina went around the horse to the other side, holding on to the tops of the reins in order to steady him when he got free.
The knife was not cutting. It was all Dan could do to rub a line into the tight leather, leaving a crease but not making even one tear. He tried again.
It was at that moment that the horse had enough. With a deep breath that turned into a moan, he heaved up, hooves still tied together, head and neck pulling down even further. Showing great strength, he managed to lift up his whole front end, sending Dan toppling over to one side, while Tina stepped back and was forced to let go. He hovered for one long, immeasurable moment on his hind legs, balancing precariously, only to fall with a crash into the underbrush to his left side.
Now his feet were frantically kicking at the air, trying to loosen the grip around his legs. There was nothing for Tina and Dan to do but stand there and watch as the reins dug into the horse's canon bones. With one resolved flip of the head, there was a loud snap as the reins finally split.
For a moment, everyone stopped moving. The horse's sides continued to heave but his legs quietly stretched straight ahead like two long tree branches.
Tina was the first to spring into action - and she was quickly by the horse's head, grabbing for the ripped end of the rein on her side of the horse. Too exhausted to respond, the horse only watched as she took a good grip and positioned herself out of the way of the horse for the inevitable lurch forward to stand up.
And then he was up. With a deep snort, and another, and even another, the horse shook his neck side to side, grunting as he went into a full-body shake. The tension released, his eyes went soft as he shifted his weight side to side. Becoming a little more alert, he looked curiously at Tina, who was still at his right side, and reached forward for a soft sniff of her arm. It was as if he was thanking her.
A quick scan over his body told Tina that there would be cuts to clean and legs to wrap, but overall, the damage was minimal. She hoped the same was true for the rider.
"I'll walk with him," said Tina, and Dan headed for the car. The quiet stillness enveloped them as they started off for the long walk home, the clippety-clop of the hooves being the only disruption to the serene nighttime earth sounds.
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