"Easy, Snow," Skye Nicholson said as she led a prancing white mustang into a corral at Keystone Stables. She closed the gate behind her and cautiously detached a lead rope from the horse's halter, coiling the rope in her hands. As she reached to touch the horse's muzzle, the animal reared, his eyes wild with fear.
Skye stepped back, allowing the horse to relax. He pawed the ground, snorted, and backed his rump against the corral. Pivoting his powerful body, he faced his long flowing tail toward Skye. In stark defiance, he stood like a statue and focused on the barn. With ears pricked forward and neck arched, his sleek white coat sparkled in the warm spring sun like new-fallen snow.
Studying the horse's every move, Skye took another few steps back, ran her fingers through her long dark hair and sighed. "I should have named you 'Fireball' instead of 'Snow.' Only one problem, though. You'd have to be a sorrel to have that name."
The Show Offs
"Well, well, if it isn't our famous cowpoke from Snyder County, Skye Nicholson!" a familiar nasty voice yelled from behind.
Skye's mind raced as fast as her heart. Hannah and Betty. What are they doing here! Slipping out of the corral, Skye forced herself to turn toward the voices.
There in all her snooty glory, in the best western clothes money can buy, sat Hannah Gilbert on her flashy palomino. On a jet black Morgan sat Betty Feaster in fancy duds and nose in the air. Both purebred horses had reputations in Snyder County of winning any horse show they ever entered, and both girls let no one forget it!
"Oh, hi," Skye said weakly. "Aren't you a bit far from home?"
"This Saturday is perfect for a trail ride," Hannah sassed, stroking her horse's wavy mane. "We decided to give our mounts the day off and see how things are over on your side of the tracks."
"Besides, with horses like these, we don't need much practice," Betty bragged. "That silly little show is a whole week away."
"So, Skye, are you entering that crazy thing in the show?" Hannah's face reeked with sarcasm. "I've got the perfect name for your team: 'Wild Foster Kid and Her Wild Hay Bag.'"
"He's a registered mustang," Skye snapped. "And his name is Snow."
"I think 'Flake' would be a better name." Hannah laughed. "No way will he be ready for next Saturday."
Betty giggled. "Hannah, you're wrong on that one. Looks like he'd be good for the miles-and-miles-away relay."
"I'm entering him in a halter class, and he'll be ready." Skye sounded confident, but in her heart she wasn't so sure.
"Sure, he'll be ready," Hannah sneered. She and Betty broke into mocking laughs as they slowly rode away.
"See you tomorrow!" Betty yelled. "We'll ride by again just to check your progress. Seven days and counting!"
Skye felt her face flush red and her insides churn with anger as she recalled other "bad" times with Hannah at Madison Middle School. Ever since Skye had come to live at Keystone Stables and had become a Christian, she tried to treat Hannah and her friends better. She even had apologized to Hannah for punching her in the nose in the cafeteria, but Hannah just stuck her nose higher in the air. Hannah always had other ideas. Mean and nasty ones. Keep your cool, Skye told herself. You've been through this before with those two. Beat them fair and square in the ring.
Skye stared at Snow, the biggest challenge she faced in a long time. "We've got one week," she said with a heartfelt prayer. "Lord, I really need you by my side for this one."
The Show Training
For several hours Skye horse whispered, using techniques she had learned at Monty Roberts' horse training camp. As she started to bond with Snow, she used the Advance-and-Retreat method. She worked him by pitching one end of a long lead rope at his hindquarters and forcing him to "retreat," or circle the perimeter of the corral. When he tired of running and stopped, Skye would "advance," eyeball to eyeball with the horse, and touch his face. She then retreated from Snow and waited for him to come to her. All went well until a passing truck on the road in front of Keystone Stables backfired, sending Snow into a frenzy.
"Easy, Fella." Skye backed away from the horse as he stomped, snorted, and repeated his tail-in-your-face routine. "Easy, boy-"
"Skye," a woman's voice yelled from outside the corral, "is everything all right?"
Skye slipped outside the corral and joined her foster mother whose blue eyes betrayed her deep concern.
"Yeah, everything's cool with Snow and me, but not with – oh, never mind."
"You mean Hannah and Betty, don't you?" the woman asked. "I saw them ride into the woods.
"Mom, I try to be nice to them, but Hannah just won't forgive me. I don't know what else to do."
Mrs. Chambers rested her arms on the corral. "Skye, you've come a long way since you've become a Christian. But it's not always easy, is it? Especially when others don't let you forget your past."
"Sometimes I feel like two different kids." Skye leaned against the fence next to her foster mother. "Hannah makes me so mad I want to punch her lights out again, but I know God would never want me to do that."
Mrs. Chambers slipped her arm around Skye. "Honey, we all have mixed feelings from time to time when we're challenged by circumstances or people who might not like us. How does God want you to respond?"
"I know He wants me to be kind to Hannah," Skye said. "But that sure isn't easy. I'd rather try to hug a porcupine."
Mrs. Chambers let out a hearty laugh. "Just remember that Hannah might not know a thing about God. You are her only Bible. Skye, she probably knows you're a Christian. But she has to see something in your life that she wants – or needs."
"Right now I need to get back in the corral with Mr. Stubborn." Skye pointed at Snow.
"I'm sure you'll have him ready for the show." Mrs. Chambers started to walk away. "Give it your best shot, Honey. We don't expect blue ribbons all the time."
The Show Down
Sunday after church, Skye headed to the training corral with Snow. As she worked the horse, she thought about Pastor Newman's sermon, "Loving Others," which sounded like a rerun of what Mrs. Chambers had said the day before.
"How did the pastor know that was my problem?" Skye said to Snow while he cantered at the end of the lungeing line. "I'm sure Mom didn't tell him. Oh, I get it." Smiling, she drew Snow to her side and patted his neck. "It's a God thing."
From behind, Skye heard hands clapping and that same familiar irritating voice. "Why, Betty, I do believe the foster kid is getting a grip on that crazy horse. Look, he's even standing still for her. Git along little doggie!"
Betty laughed. "What did you do to quiet him down, Skye? Give him a bottle of aspirin?"
Skye turned toward the girls on their horses right outside the corral. "Git along little doggie, indeed," she said, joining in the laughs. "And this little doggie is getting along fine. Thanks for your concern."
Speechless, the girls quickly exchanged empty glances.
"So, Hannah," Skye said, "what classes are you entering on Saturday?"
"Ah-ah," Hannah stammered, "Western Pleasure and, ah, ah -"
"How about you, Betty?" Skye led Snow toward the corral fence and faced the girls head on.
"Western Pleasure and, ah, Advanced Trail," Betty said.
"Looks like you won't have any competition from Champ and me. He has the week off," Skye said. "I want to spend all my time getting Snow ready for his debut."
Hannah squared her Stetson and as she glanced at Skye, their eyes met.
Pow! Skye's invisible fist landed right between Hannah's snooty eyes. But this punch was completely different, a punch of love and kindness.
"Well, I – I guess we better be going," Hannah said. "Looks like you need to focus on Snow and next Saturday."
"Yeah, see you at the show," Betty added as both girls turned their horses and rode away.
"I'll look for you," Skye yelled to the girls as she slipped her arms around Snow's neck. "And now you need to get to work," she said to her horse.
All afternoon Skye gave Snow the workout of his life. A quick learner, Snow responded to Skye's love and training techniques. By suppertime, he had learned to work with his halter and the rope, stopping, starting, and turning at Skye's slightest command. Just as Skye prodded the horse into the all-important stance called "squaring up," a truck sped by and honked its horn. Snow's ears pricked and every muscle tensed, yet with his eyes focused on Skye, he stood firm.
A victorious smile spread over Skye's face as she kissed her horse on his nose. "Snow, it looks like you, me, and God are a team that no one can beat. I just know you'll be ready for that show."
* * * * *
"My goal is to leave the world a better place than I found it, for horses and for people too," Monty says.
* * * * *
Learn more about Monty Roberts at his website www.MontyRoberts.com
Learn more about mustang adoptions in the United States at www.wildhorseandburro.blm.gov/index.php or 1-866-4MUSTANGS
(Winner of short story contest in INSIDE PENNSYLVANIA magazine; Published December 2008)
"Dad, I-I want to see the first snow," he said, forcing the words out with jagged, tired breath. "D-do you think I'll see it, the way I am and all?"
"Colton, son, you'll see it. I promise. We'll see it together," I assured him.
I held my eight-year-old son close as we lay together in his bed in the sun room and watched a myriad of dried-up brown leaves dance in the yard. Next to Colton snuggled his pride and joy and very best friend, Barney, a tan ragamuffin mutt adopted from the dog orphanage the day after Colton was born. Barney, off into his dream world of rabbit chases, had no idea of the few precious days, moments, he had left to spend with his hero, the leader of his pack.
I allowed my gaze to follow the parade of leaves as the wind whipped them along the faded grass. Autumn's beauty now past had escaped me, and my mind was elsewhere. I studied the threatening gray November sky, squeezed Colton tighter and stared at his bald head.
First snow? Colton lives for that first token of winter every year.
"Any day now," the forecasters had said.
Dear God, send it soon. Real soon.
I studied the back yard as though I had never seen it before– Colton's and Barney's special place, a kingdom of fun for a boy and his dog.
My eyes burned with tears and I swallowed hard, remembering past first snows. Wonderful, crisp, fluffy, Pennsylvania winters that brought snowmen, snow forts, snow angels … . Colton and his beloved dog playing from the very moment my boy learned to run. Chasing. Tumbling. Laughing. Rolling.
Why had life gone so wrong? I brushed a stream of wetness from my face and tried to block out the last three months of my life, of Colton's life. God, why this child?
… only a short time …
Words that I hated with every fiber in my being crept into my mind like tendrils from a poisonous plant, choking out the memories of good times gone forever.
How do I explain death and parting to my child? Sad words … but with a smile…with hope …
"Dad, look!" Colton managed to say. Somehow, with supernatural strength that he mustered from his weak body, he struggled, lifted his skinny pale arm, and pointed.
From the dark rolling clouds, specks of swirling white started fluttering their way to the ground.
"Son, it's the first snow!" I practically shouted, hugging him tighter. "Barney," I added, "Look! First snow!"
Barney launched from his favorite spot and tore toward the window, barking, jumping, pleading … First snow! Let's play!
"You bet cha, son, we're going out to play!"
An hour later – disconnected tubes, heavy clothes and boots, blankets wrapped around the frame of a sick child – I carried Colton out into the yard as Barney ran beside.
Sitting limply in a lawn chair, Colton struggled to laugh as Barney and I romped and rolled on the barren lawn that quickly succumbed to a blanket of sparkling white. I turned Barney on his back on the ground and, carefully, slid his back legs back and forth to make the "first doggie snow angel ever."
Colton coughed out a weak laugh that lit up his entire face. "C-cool, dad.
Th-that's really cool."
We played until Colton's body started to shiver, and I carried him back inside. One more time, my boy had seen his first snow.