Here’s another of our short story picks in honor of Halloween. Would you take a ride to Farrier Falls?
By Katharine Mertens, DVM
Sarah and Tess had ridden trails together for as long as they could remember. They’d grown up on Long Island, but while Sarah opted to stay in the city after they graduated together from Columbia University, Tess moved to the serenity of northern Vermont, with which she’d fallen in love during a ski trip freshman year.
Rural Vermont was a place of peace, introspection and—especially savored in the midst of sparse population—community. Families that homesteaded here around the time of the American Revolution had stayed for generations, spawning tangled webs of descendants who both clung to each other and welcomed newcomers in a perpetual quest to survive one more harsh winter, before spring thaws came just in time to restore faith in the possibility of rebirth.
But the fall was what outsiders knew of this place. Like many others, Sarah visited during crisp, October weekends to take in the changing foliage. Tess kept two horses, so on these treasured weekends the friends got to share the beauty from horseback. Riding along dirt roads together, their years lived separately disappeared as quickly as breath rising from the horses’ muzzles. They re-told the same stories every year for decades and the re-telling only made the stories sweeter.
This year, Tess led the two along an old supply road from the days of the Revolution, a wide forest path meandering near a creek. “There’s an interesting story about this place,” said Tess. “I’m hoping we can ride as far as a spot called ‘Farrier Falls.’”
“Farrier Falls?” said Sarah. “Do tell.”
“Yeah well, people say it’s haunted.”
“Whaaat?” said Sarah. “Haunted? What’s the story?”
Tess giggled, “I know, ghosts, right? As if.”
Sarah felt a cold shudder rock her shoulders, but she didn’t mention it.
Tess continued. “So, yeah. Supposedly Farrier Falls is the site of an unsolved murder from like a hundred years ago.”
“A hundred years? People still talk about this murder?” asked Sarah.
“Well I mean, you know, it’s a legend,” said Tess. “Vermont is full of legends. People have lived here for generations, so there’re all sorts of great stories around here.”
“Okay so a 100-year-old murder,” said Sarah. “What’s the story? What does it have to do with Farrier Falls?”
Tess giggled again. “Some things never change,” she said. “Apparently all those years ago some rich dude lost his wife to an affair with the farrier, right? But the farrier was supposed to be friends with the husband. They knew each other, would go hunting together and stuff. One day, supposedly, the two guys went up hunting with a bunch of dogs along this creek. But only one guy came back.”
Sarah shuddered again. “No dogs?”
“Well I don’t know if the dogs came back, weirdo,” said Tess. “But the farrier didn’t. People say he was pushed over the Falls to his death by the jealous husband.”
“Yikes!” said Sarah. “And I guess if the dogs did come back, they never told what happened.”
“You got it,” said Tess. “But people say the Falls are haunted and that you can still hear the farrier’s hunting dog barking around there. Sometimes.”
A third time Sarah shuddered, reaching to zip her jacket tighter under her chin. “We did see some other cars parked at the trail head, right?” she said, half-joking, half-hopeful. “I mean so it’s not like you’re the only crazy person who dares to go up here.”
“People hike this trail all the time,” laughed Tess. “Like I said, it’s a legend. Doesn’t mean it’s truth.”
“Doesn’t mean it isn’t, either,” muttered Sarah.
“What?” said Tess.
Sarah coughed a little to clear her tightening throat. “Nothing. Surprised we didn’t see any other horse trailers at the parking lot, though,” she offered.
Tess sighed. “Seriously!” she said. I mean this trail is awe—Whoa!” she cried. The horses stopped with a jolt. Ears pricked, the horses stared down the trail. Their prey hearts beat hard enough to be felt by each rider. A dog bayed in the distance.
Sarah’s horse trumpeted loudly, frozen with anticipation. The women saw movement through the woods ahead, and a flash of white momentarily appeared between the trees.
Two beagles sprang across the trail about 50 yards ahead, giving chase to an unseen quarry. The dogs disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, soon swallowed in the thicket of gold and orange leaves.
“Scared the crap out of me!” said Sarah, and her horse shook its entire body and snorted out relief.
“Crazy dogs!” said Tess. “Anyway. Like I was saying: this trail is awesome!”
She took in a deep breath and sighed with the beauty of it all. Far above the riders, sunlight from a brilliant blue sky filtered through treetops. Beneath them, the horses’ hooves swished quietly though pine needles and fresh leaf fall. Tess had decided to keep the horses barefoot this year, and back at the trailhead she had showed Sarah how to put on protective hoof boots for the ride. The boots muffled the horses’ footsteps to mere whispers through the leaves.
Minutes later, the horses again sensed movement down the trail, and Sarah and Tess peered ahead to see patches of neon orange swim into focus. It was the wool caps and vests of a couple of hunting buddies. “Nice day for a ride!” the men called as they approached the riders. “Hope our dogs didn’t give you any trouble.”
Sarah breathed a secret sigh of relief. “Okay so I guess those weren’t ghost dogs, huh,” she chuckled to Tess, trying to sound more convinced than she felt.
They picked up a trot. After a while the trail began a steep climb, leaving the creek below at the bottom of a deep gully. Eventually the trail flattened, and the horses were glad to ease back to a walk, winded from the climb. Soon they came to a hitching rail tucked into a small clearing beside the trail. The women dismounted and loosened the horses’ girths for a rest. They pulled off the bridles, then pushed away the furry heads which leaned in for rubs.
“Here, fine—we’ll give you ear rubs already!” laughed Sarah. It was hard to be annoyed with the gentle giants, especially for Sarah who only got to ride on rare visits to the country. The horses each had a rope halter under their bridle. Sarah and Tess tied the horses to the hitch rail, then pulled water bottles and snacks from the saddle bags. Sarah fed the horses carrots, savoring the sweet vegetable essence which erupted as the horses chewed.
Tess checked that hoof boots had stayed in place, none rotated sideways or loose, nor, as sometimes happened, lost on the trail. The horses had been left barefoot behind, but all four front hooves were still wrapped safely with the rubber boots. Tess set down the last hoof and straightened up, stretching out the kinks in her back. She’d never gotten this far down the trail before and was glad there was such as easy spot to enjoy a rest.
“Hey look at this!” she called to Sarah. “I guess we made it!”
Sarah looked around, and Tess pointed out a small wooden sign nailed to a tree. Sarah squinted to make out the capital letters stamped into the sign. “Farrier Falls, 75 yds,” it said. An arrow pointed down a narrow foot path away from the main trail.
“Go check it out,” said Tess. “We can take turns; I’ll stay here with the horses.”
“Yeah, right. You take me to a haunted water fall and send me off by myself!” laughed Sarah. “How about I stay with the horses; you go see if there’s any sign of 100-year-old foul play.”
Tess giggled again. “Just messing with you,” she said. “Let’s both go.”
Sarah hesitated. She hated to leave the horses; the warmth of their bodies, the smell of the sweat which barely dampened the fur of their growing winter coats. “You sure the horses will be okay?” she asked.
Tess assured her they would. “It’s only 75 yards,” she said. “We’ll be back in 5 minutes.”
It was a short walk to the falls, but it had clearly been months since anyone had taken the path. The trail was narrow and filled in with wispy shrubs making their final stretch skyward before yielding to winter. The women stomped down the brush and snapped fallen branches out of the way. Sarah swore under her breath as she tripped, finding herself alone as Tess, more used to the rural woods, disappeared from view.
Despite the tangled footing, Sarah broke into a jog to catch up to her friend. She hoped to warm up, too, as an unmistakable chill had settled through her. She hadn’t realized she was shivering, but suddenly her chattering teeth drowned out all other noise except, unmistakably, the distant bay of a hunting hound.
“Oh my gosh, Sarah!” cried Tess in the distance.
Sarah shrieked and stumbled forward, gasping for breath. Miraculously the trail opened ahead of her, and there was Tess, standing in bright sunlight at the banks of a cascading waterfall. Tess stood with arms reached to the sky, her t-shirt pulling out of her riding jeans, head titled back to catch warm sunlight on her face. “This is amazing!” cried Tess again, turning to greet her friend.
Sarah collapsed forward in relief, resting her hands on bent knees as she caught her breath. “Did you hear that?” she gasped, panting.
“Hear what?” asked Tess, and both women fell silent, listening. There was the rush of falling water, the chirp of a scolding squirrel and nothing else but the faint rustling of autumn leaves. “It just sounds … peaceful,” said Tess.
Sarah shook her head and let out a sigh of relief. “I swear I heard another dog,” she said.
“Oh, come on now,” said Tess. “I’m glad I didn’t tell you the rest of the story, the one about the farrier’s ghost.” Tess opened her eyes wide in mock horror, grinning.
“Ok this is seriously not the time to mess with me about ghosts,” said Sarah. “I tripped and really freaked myself out back there when you got ahead of me.”
“Well even if there were a ghost, we don’t need to worry about it,” said Tess. “Supposedly—and maybe this is why we didn’t see any other horse trailers, come to think of it,” Tess paused in thought.
“Supposedly what?” asked Sarah.
“Well supposedly the ghost only messes with horses. Being a farrier and all.”
“Somehow I don’t find that comforting,” said Sarah, trying with little success to laugh off her concern. “We’re rode horses up here, if you recall.”
“Nah, just silly stuff,” said Tess. “Like, people saying their horses spooked a lot up here. Or lost a shoe or whatever. Stuff that can happen on any trail ride, right?”
“Right,” agreed Sarah, tentatively, thinking about her friend’s logic. Stuff that can happen on any trail ride.
“And besides,” said Tess. “The horses don’t even have shoes on, remember? I’m testing those new hoof boots. So, no worries.”
Sarah shrugged as she gazed toward the waterfall. “I guess so,” she said. “And yeah, it is beautiful up here.” She breathed deeply, trying to savor the moment instead of worrying so much.
The ride back was uneventful, supporting Tess’s conviction that meddlesome ghosts were merely the stuff of legend. If anything, the ride was more beautiful on the way down. As afternoon slipped into early evening, the sunlight brought more shades of gold out of the trees surrounding the two friends.
“That was a wonderful ride, thank you,” said Sarah as they returned to the trail head. “Every year, it’s always a wonderful ride up here. I’m so grateful.” She smiled at Tess. She didn’t mention that part of her gratitude was in finding the horse trailer undisturbed. She simply added, “Sorry I was kind of nervous about the ghost and all.”
“Nah,” said Tess. “Just had to add some local flavor to your experience, that’s all,” and she smiled back. “Anyway, we’ll get all the gear off these guys and go find a warm fire and a good bottle of wine, how about that?” The temperature had dropped along with the setting sun.
The women put saddles back in the trailer tack room, and rubbed sweaty horse-backs with faded, terry-cloth towels, massaging out any possible sore spots from the tack. “Oh, and the hoof boots!” remembered Tess. “Let’s see how they did, check for any rubs or anything there.”
She bent down, asking her horse to lift a foreleg for inspection. The horse easily yielded its hoof. Tess unbuckled the retention strap wrapped around the pastern. She pulled apart the Velcro which secured the front of the boot, and wrestled the hoof free. She froze in place.
The hoof wall was intact; the boots had protected that. The heel bulbs were soft and smooth; there were no sores where Tess felt carefully under the hair at the coronet band. But what she found under the hoof rooted her to the ground.
There, glinting in the evening light, was a perfectly fitted, new horseshoe.