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 think 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.
Acorn knew that command very well. He bucked his approval and rushed forward out of the paddock.
As they ran, Jamie remembered how Acorn, since he was a yearling, had displayed that strong shepherding instinct that cutting horses and shepherd dogs have. From then on, one of his favorite pastimes had been to break into the sheep pen and see how long he could hold one away from the rest. Acorn loved it and he loved watching him. And he could have sworn that even the sheep had warmed to it, because they got better at every round. He liked to picture them in the barn at night keeping score and bragging about their latest moves.
It was not clear whether the sheep agreed with Jamie or not, but they all quickly cowered inside as the pair of rogues skidded to a halt in front of their shelter.
In the stall nearby, Brunga snorted and turned around. Underneath his broken horn, his bloodshot eye gleamed with malice toward the intruders.
Acorn and Jamie flinched and quickly shuffled forward.
Jamie got hold of the swiveling fences attached to the sheep’s pen and pulled them to the shed. He fastened them to their latches, creating a corridor between the shed and the pen. Then he jumped inside the shed, opened the gate and drove the sheep out as they bleated in confusion.
Acorn watched the woolly animals filing in front of him, his eyes flashing from one to the other as if counting.
The sheep shot inside the pen and gathered in a heap at the farthest corner.
Jamie unlatched the fence and Acorn stormed in. The sheep broke ranks and hurtled in every direction. Acorn pulled back his ears, bared his teeth and with a couple of well-placed lunges gathered them back together.
Jamie climbed onto the fence to get a better view.
Acorn surveyed the herd coolly, his wet, dark eyes searching through the mass of woolly creatures. He apparently found what he was looking for and aimed ahead.
Jamie followed his gaze and landed on Pillow, a fluffy ram that was studying Acorn with apprehension. Despite the name and the appearance, Pillow was one of the most athletic sheep in the herd, and one of the shrewdest ones. More than once, he had proved a worthy challenge for Acorn.
“Good choice, buddy!” Jamie called out.
Acorn twitched his ears, but did not look away from the sheep. He studied the herd for one more second, then bolted forward, cutting through them decisively. The sheep broke ranks again. This time, Acorn let them trickle away and zeroed in on Pillow. He spread his forelegs wide, dropped his head low until his nose skimmed the dust on the ground, and crouched down in an almost feline chasing pose. He looked like a hunting animal ready to pounce or a runner ready to sprint from the blocks.
Cornered, Pillow broke out in a frenzy.
Acorn, gathered up underneath himself and perfectly balanced, responded lightning fast to Pillow’s erratic jolts. His huge body seemed to glide in the air despite its impressive mass. Like a defensive basketball player, he marked Pillow closely, anticipating his every move and sealing any escape route. With his head low and his eyes locked on him, he pressed closer, pushing Pillow’s and his own reflexes to the limit.
Jamie watched mesmerized. Acorn’s muscles gleamed in the late afternoon light; Pillow’s coat billowed and swayed with his every move; their hooves thundered, scraped and slid on the ground. It was a superb match, all shrouded in a mystic cloud of dust that glittered against the sun. The speed and reflexes of both animals were almost blinding.
Suddenly, Acorn pulled back to take a breath. Pillow retreated, relieved. The two went to their corners, studying each other.
With his back against the fence, Pillow darted his eyes around, taking in the whole pen, looking for a chink in Acorn’s defenses. It seemed he couldn’t find one. He stared at the other sheep huddled behind Acorn.
Jamie could tell that the herd instinct was building inside him. Away from his mates, he felt weak, alone, vulnerable. In a matter of seconds, he was going to break.
Acorn was watching him closely too, catching his breath.
Jamie counted under his breath. “Three... Two... One...”
Acorn nudged forward.
As if a spark had ignited under his hooves, Pillow jolted, thrusting himself at Acorn’s left. Acorn pulled back almost instantly. He coiled himself up, then lunged, baring his teeth. Pillow stopped cold, then wheeled around blindly. He threw himself back in an attempt to outrun Acorn in the other direction, but misjudged and crashed against the pen. One of the rickety bars of the fence gave way under his weight. The rusty nail popped out of the rotten wood like a cork from the bottle. A gap suddenly opened in front of Pillow. He seized his chance and squeezed himself through, running for his life.
“Hey!” Jamie cried out.
In response, Pillow bleated loudly and bolted into the open. It wasn’t clear whether he was bleating in terror or triumph, but he was certainly making a magnificent escape.
Jamie meant to be angry, but he couldn’t keep an admiring smile from spreading on his face. Man, that sheep was good!
Acorn was not as pleased. Snorting angrily, he galloped up to Jamie, demanding he open the gate. The sheep around him scattered, noticed the gap in the pen, then started filing out into the open.
Jamie jumped off the fence and unlatched it. Acorn bolted past him in hot pursuit. “Wait up!” he shouted and sprinted after him, his soaked shoes squeaking as he ran at the top of his lungs.
In a second, they flashed around the corner of the house and stormed into the yard. Jamie had a faint impression of the herd of sheep parting like the Red Sea before two human figures, and then he recognized his mom with Mrs. Roeg. Too late.
“Jamie!” yelled his mother through the stampede.
He and Acorn froze in the face of authority.
Authority, as personified by Maddie Blackshear, looked rather diminutive, yet quite intimidating nonetheless. Even though she was shorter than her son, she managed to stare down at Jamie. Her black eyes gleamed with threat, crowned by a mane of wild, curly black hair that resembled her son’s, but looked even more untamable. As if charged with electricity, those locks curled in the air and gave her the uncanny resemblance to the fabled monster Medusa.
“I didn’t do it,” Jamie blurted. “Acorn did it; I swear!”
Maddie raised her black brows in utter disbelief as she glanced at the walking skeins of wool straggling through her garden.
Acorn’s gaze drifted to Pillow, now grazing happily around blue and violet tulips.
“Don’t you even think of that!” Maddie yelled, raising the sleeves of her jacket to reinforce her message.
Acorn startled and looked away.
Maddie raised her finger, pointing at her son and his accomplice. “You two stay away from the sheep before I throw you both in Brunga’s stall!”
That was Mom’s standard threat. Never put into effect, yet still pretty effective. Brunga wasn’t known for his good manners--he had broken a couple of Dad’s ribs once and Mom’s wrist another, so a trip to his stall would probably entail some kind of physical damage.
Mrs. Roeg giggled, amused.
Jamie turned to her, exploiting the chance to take immediate evasive action. Mrs. Roeg was one of Mom’s few friends and he liked her. She was a willowy, auburn-haired woman with ladylike manners. Whenever he looked at her, he couldn’t help thinking of honey--maybe it was the gold tone of her skin or her warm smile that did it. He didn’t know, but he found her very pleasant and pretty. He smiled politely at her. “Hello, Mrs. Roeg.”
“Hello, dear,” she replied, beaming, then she turned to Maddie and winked. “Looks like Captain Chaos and Helper are on a new mission.”
Maddie glared at her son’s drenched clothes and shook her head.
Jamie made to open his mouth and explain.
Maddie waved her hand impatiently. “I don’t even want to know.”
Jamie grinned. He was going to tell her later anyway. He was sure Mom would find his adventure very amusing. She usually liked it when he came up with wild plans. He hoped he could at least get a laugh out of her--it was always a treat to see Mom laugh.
He turned expectantly to Mrs. Roeg. If she was here, then maybe... “Did Holly come?” he asked in one breath.
Mrs. Roeg’s eyes shifted; something like a shadow passed over her smile. “No, she had to stay home. She said she was behind in math.”
Jamie’s grin died away. Of course, he thought.
Mrs. Roeg threw him a strange glance. “Sorry, dear.”
Jamie shrugged. These days, Holly didn’t come to visit him anymore. It sucked. He didn’t understand why she always had to be so busy. He was mulling over these thoughts when he felt his mom’s hand running through his hair. The touch of her skin made him feel a little better.
“Dry out your clothes,” Maddie said gently, “or you’ll catch a cold.”
She bent down and gave him a kiss.
Jamie felt the warmth from her lips spread to his chest. Oh well, perhaps Holly was really busy after all. He’d ask her to come play with him and Acorn next time. “Good-bye, Mrs. Roeg!” he said, turning to her.
She beamed, apparently relieved he was in good mood again. “Good-bye, Captain!”
Jamie’s smile flashed back on his lips. He saluted militarily and ran off with Acorn.
“Jamie,” Maddie yelled after him, “get those sheep back into the shed!”
Flustered, Jamie stopped in his tracks. “Oh, right, right!”