Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Seven

LEXY

I softly stroke the brush over the dip and slope of Glory's back and down her sides. The fans lazily turn above us causing dander and dust motes to drift in the air, floating like tiny feathers on the slats of light peeking in through the cracks and gaps of the warped wood.

We're alone. I wanted to have a moment just between the two of us to connect with her before our ride and strengthen our bond.

She stands still and stoic as I move over the length of her, making sure there are no burrs or twigs caught in her coat. The stable is peaceful and hushed, the only sound coming from the distant echo of voices carrying in from the pastures.

Nick and Ben are out widening the training pen. I know what a big day this is for her, how her trust and heart and spirit were broken by her previous owners. I want her to believe I will not hurt her as they did. She hasn't been ridden in almost a year and still bears the scars and trauma of abuse and neglect.

Coming around to the front of her, I brush over the broad width of her neck and shoulders. When she bends her head to sniff at me, I tenderly kiss her nose. "Hi sweet girl," I murmur, smiling up at her. "Are you excited for our ride today? I'll be careful with you, I promise." She nuzzles my hair and I know she is feeling comfortable and safe.

Going over to the supply shelf, I put the brush away, get one of the blankets. Turning, I bring it back over to her and drape it over her back, smoothing out the folds and wrinkles. Nick told me it would help protect her against sores and chafing from the weight and rub of the saddle. I don't want to cause her pain in any way and not enjoy her first ride out.

Nick comes back in. He had already checked her hooves for roots and rocks and gave them a good, thorough cleaning. Pulling the saddle off the rack, he carries it over and I help him put it on her. We don't say much, trying to keep Glory calm.

There's something reverent and ceremonial about the process of dressing her as we buckle the straps around and underneath her waist, as if we know we're in the presence of greatness.

I wonder if she remembers preparing for races, the excitement, and anticipation, the crowds, the cheers, the other horses straining and surging next to her, their breath on her neck, nipping at her heels, catching up, challenging her, competing against her.

Does she miss the victory? The dirt flying under her hooves, the steam and sweat glistening on her body, the wind through her mane, the clamoring attention, the smiles and praise and admiration and respect as she was the first to burst and break through the ribbon of the finish line. Does she remember who she is? What she can do?

Sadly, she won't ever race again due to the severity of her injuries, but I want to give her golden days back to her however I can. She's lost way too much. Just as we have. She's still a champion and deserves better, more, everything, and I will do my best to make sure she has it.

We slip on her bridle and Nick gently puts the bit in her mouth, being mindful not to clink it against her teeth. As he makes the final adjustments, I stand back a little and notice she looks like the world-renowned racehorse she used to be. She even seems to stand taller and prouder. A fierceness begins to glint in her eyes as if she's priming for a win. She's sleek and strong and majestic. She could make rulers and kings turn their heads and stare. My heart swells with pride and love for her. She's the most beautiful horse I've ever seen.

Nick hands me the reigns. "You want to lead her out to the ring?"

A thrill shoots through me as I take them. "Yes," I answer, smiling at him. "Thank you."

He leans in and gives me a quick kiss, making my heart yearn to say things I'm afraid he's not ready to hear. "You'll do great." He looks over at Glory. "You both will."

Nodding, I take a deep breath. "Let's go." Clicking my tongue for her to follow, I lead her out of the stable and she comes willingly, eagerly, as if she knows what the day has in store for her.

Carrying my riding helmet, Nick keeps an eye on us, making sure Glory stays on the path. He doesn't want her to startle or bolt. But, she walks calmly, regally, gracefully, experienced with star-studded arenas and prestigious racetracks. The southern sunshine glows over her like a spotlight as we walk towards the pen.

My family is already waiting for us and I instinctively seek out my mom. I always look for her first, anywhere and everywhere. Even when we were lost in the middle of nowhere I never stopped needing her.

Almost as if she can read my mind, she glances over and locks eyes with me. When she smiles, my nerves quietly settle. It's still such a relief and surprise to have her here. I don't want to do this without her.

She grew up around the horses so she doesn't seem as concerned as my dad who kept making comments over breakfast about how big Glory is and if I'm sure this is a good idea. I understand he just wants me to be safe and think it's sweet he's worried. I feel like we are finally a family.

Becca doesn't seem fazed at all and is casually leaning against the gate. She smiles and waves when she sees us. Ben gives me a thumbs-up sign as we pass them.

Nick opens the latch and I lead Glory into the ring. He has me stop her in the middle next to the mounting steps which will make it easier for me to get on her.

He puts the helmet over my head, latching it firmly under my chin. I had borrowed Becca's riding boots. "You ready?"

I've been waiting days for this moment but now that it's here, I'm suddenly nervous. At over a thousand pounds, Glory seems much larger and more intimidating than she usually does. I look up at her powerful body towering above me. "I think so."

"Just relax and take a deep breath," he reassures me, tucking a stray strand of my hair back off my face. "She'll be clear with you what she's ready to do. If she only wants to walk, then just walk the ring. If she's ready to do more, follow her lead but remember you're the one with the reigns. Be patient with her. She'll sense what you're feeling. And it's her first ride in a long time."

"What if I fall off of her?"

Nick looks at me and I see nothing and no one else. "I'll catch you," he promises. "I'll be in here the whole time. You trust me?"

A ray of sun is slanting underneath the shade of his cowboy hat, catching his eyes just right, making the gold flecks glint. Fascinated, it distracts me enough that I forget about being anxious. "Yes."

"Okay. Now, you want to get on from her left. That's her mounting side and she's used to it. She'll know what to expect."

He helps me walk up the steps until I'm standing next to her. He keeps a close watch as I hold onto the horn of the saddle and put my foot in the stirrup. Hoisting myself up, I swing my other leg over like he taught me.

Reminding myself to stay calm, I carefully adjust and settle myself in the seat, trying not to move too much or too suddenly. I don't want to spook or scare her. I can feel my family holding their breath and everyone is very quiet as we wait for what Glory's reaction will be.

A full minute passes. She doesn't sidestep or rear up or try to buck me from her. There is no resistance from her at all and I let myself ease my body more into hers.

The leather creaks beneath me as I look down at Nick from my perch on Glory's back. I remember Ben saying she was almost sixteen hands high. I'm not sure what that means. All I do know is the ground seems miles below my feet and I feel my stomach do a little somersault. It's a good thing I'm not scared of heights.

"She's letting me ride her," I exclaim, grinning at Nick as I stroke Glory's neck to keep her steady and soothe her. "I can't believe it."

Nick grins up at me. "She sure is. I knew she wanted it to be you." He checks the straps on the saddle, making sure they are secure around Glory's body. "Remember to keep your shoulders back. Ride from your core." He pats his middle and I automatically tighten my abdomen muscles. "You don't want to lose your balance if she starts to trot or run. Make sure your feet are in line with your hips."

I move my heels in the stirrups, aligning myself. "How's that?"

Nick nods. "That's good. Now take the reigns and squeeze your thighs lightly against her and tell her to walk on."

Looking over the top of Glory's head, I do what he says. A small gasp escapes my lips as she instantly obeys and takes her first step forward. I pay close attention and try to match the flow of my body with hers as she walks the length of the pen. Her movements feel slightly hesitant as she finds her footing. "Good girl," I murmur as we complete our first lap.

"There you go," Nick says, tracking us. He's standing in the middle of the ring so he can turn as we do and is still close enough if something happens. I can hear how pleased he is with our progress. "You got this, Lexy. She knows what to do. Give her a minute to get the feel of it all again."

I tune everything out except Glory, listening to the crunch and clop of her hooves as she walks over the ground, the sway and rock as her body and muscles lengthen and shift, her size and power supporting and carrying me. The reins feel natural in my hands and I use them to gently communicate with her what I want her to do.

There isn't anyone else but us, the huge dome sky over our heads, the hazy morning light shimmering around us. We create our own language with each other, secrets only between the two of us, and she seems to sense my next thought and moves with me, for me, because of me.

The moment, the connection between us is intuitive and tender. To have this wounded, broken, beaten down horse come back from the brink, to have her let me get close enough to touch and ride her, is one of the greatest gifts I've ever known. I feel honored she's chosen me.

I think about my great grandfather Cade, the sensitivity and compassion he had with horses. I want to think I've inherited something from him, some innate ability and understanding. I wonder if I could ever make them dance the way he did.

And then, somewhere on our third time around the ring, Glory seems to remember her racing days and begins to trot, the pace somehow a perfectly choreographed prance as if the need to perform and compete is so deeply ingrained into her being she can't help herself. I rise and lower in the saddle with the rhythm of her gait.

She starts to pick up speed, her trot turning into a gallop and the anticipation builds in me. I lean forward, preparing for take off. I can feel her trying to break free, her body vibrating, straining, pushing against the fear and abuse that has held her back all this time.

"C'mon girl, let's go," I breathlessly urge her. "You can do it."

And then she's running, as if I cut her loose from invisible ropes, sprinting like lightning, a whirring, sudden surge of speed and power and strength. It's no longer about training or instruction or technique. She's going on pure memory and instinct and God-given talent. She's remembering who she is, where she comes from, what she was born to do.

We burst around the pen with the wind whipping through us, around us, over us, past us. The green of the fields and trees is an exhilarating blur, the faces of my family and Nick blending and disappearing into the landscape. If I ever thought animals could feel joy, I believe it now with Glory charging like freedom beneath me.

Her mane is flowing wild, her hooves pound like thunder over the ground, and I know I've never experienced anything more glorious or wonderful.

I let her do what she was meant to do and give her free reign to run, to fly, to be truly herself. And she helps me do the same. I'm laughing as we race around and around and around, faster and faster and still impossibly faster. It's unreal and unnatural as if we're no longer in our bodies and her hooves aren't even touching the ground.

All our pain is left far behind us in plumes of dust as if we're invincible, untouchable, unstoppable. It feels like nothing can ever catch us or tie us down or hold us back, and we somehow made it through the barrier of the sky and beyond the clouds. And we go higher and farther and deeper than either of us dreamed we could.

I don't ever want to come back down to earth as we penetrate through air and light and sound itself. This must be what it feels like to be made of magic or stardust or have wings and my skin tingles from the heat and force of the momentum.

"Bring her back in, Lexy," Nick calls out, his voice a distant, thin echo in the rushing wind. "You don't want to wear her out."

I wish we didn't have to stop but I listen to Nick and gently pull back on the reigns and Glory responds immediately. The world begins to come back into focus around us as we gradually slow to a trot and then a walk. I bring her to a triumphant halt where Nick is standing.

Still laughing, I collapse forward and wrap my arms around the back of Glory's neck, resting my head against her as we both catch our breath. I can feel her body trembling and heaving from the exertion beneath me. I swear she's smiling. Closing my eyes, I inhale her scent. "Good job, Glory," I whisper. "You did it, girl. I'm so proud of you." She snorts in response, and I kiss her warm coat.

I feel Nick's hand on my leg and I sit up. I'm smiling so wide my cheeks hurt. I don't think I've ever felt this alive. I look down at him. "Did you see us? Did you see what she just did?"

Nick grins up at me and I can see how proud and awestruck he is. "The two of you were amazing." He keeps a hold on Glory's bridle to steady her. "You handled her so well."

"It was all her," I say, stroking her neck. "She knew what she wanted to do."

"Way to go, Lexy," Becca says, and I turn towards her. She's beaming at me. "How do you feel?"

I'm still shaking from the adrenaline, and press my palm against my racing heart. It's pounding so hard and fast it feels like it's going to burst out of my chest. "Incredible. It was like flying. I don't think I'll ever come down."

I seek out my mom. I want to know what she's thinking more than anyone. I watch her eyes. I always have. They are the most honest part of her. My breath catches when I discover hers are wet with tears.

"You were beautiful out there, sweetheart," she tells me. "It's like you've been riding her your whole life."

"Thanks, mom," I say, my throat tightening with emotion. "I'm so glad you were here for it." I need this from her, her encouragement, and her support. I've been waiting years for her to be sober enough to really see me.

I glance over at my dad and he winks. I think he's relieved I made it without falling or getting hurt. "You were great, but I'll feel better once your feet are back on the ground," he teases, and I laugh.

"You two better get Glory back up to the stables and get her washed down," Ben says from the gate. "Rain is coming in."

Glancing up, I scan the sky but don't see one cloud. There's not even a breeze. Confused, I look back at my uncle. He catches my expression and grins. "Trust me," he tells me. I just smile to let him know I do.

Nick helps me dismount onto the steps. Once my feet are on the ground, I wrap my arms around him and kiss him, not caring that everyone can see us. "Thank you for giving me this today," I murmur, our faces barely an inch apart. "I-" love you. Startled, I catch myself just in time, hastily swallowing the words back. "I'm so happy," I stammer, flustered. My legs are a little weak and unsteady but I'm hoping he thinks it's from the ride and not from me almost blurting out my feelings.

He frowns and I see something in his eyes, a question, confusion, worry, a flicker of need, and something else that makes me go still in anticipation of what he might say. Does he know? I hold my breath, waiting, but then he seems to realize we're not alone and releases me, breaking our gaze, the intensity of the moment evaporating with the clouds of dust. "I'm happy for you. I told you she'd go anywhere for you."

And I'll go anywhere for you, I think, but don't dare say it. Instead, I smile at Glory. "She broke free today."

"Seems like you both did."

I look over at him as the truth of his words sink into me. "Yeah, I think you're right."

Nick opens the pen gate and we lead Glory out of the ring and head back to the stable together. I reach for him, holding his hand as we walk up the path. I want to absorb the wonder of this moment a little longer. My heart is full as I look out over the miles of lush green pastures, still astounded at the rustic beauty and the reality that this ranch is now my home.

There are hundreds of stories that have been passed down around campfires and shaded porches from generation to generation on this land. Most of them are true, some far-fetched, some folklore, some too heartbreaking to even speak aloud.

I long to be a part of what is remembered here, to leave my mark on this place, to make a difference in some small way, and be included in the patchwork and tapestry of those who came before me.

I want for those who inherit this land long after I'm gone to be told the story about how the local Horse Whisperer's great-granddaughter helped a broken-down racehorse named Glory break free from her pain and we both somehow found our place next to the yellowed, grainy Tintypes of my family history, standing on the shoulders of legends.
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