Halloween Short Story: The Dark Horse
“Near midnight, she was awakened by the sound of hoofbeats on concrete, the distinctive rhythm and sound jolting her awake and sending her scrambling for the door. Slipping her muck boots on and grabbing a flashlight, she headed out into the yard, swinging the flashlight side to side, searching for her escapees.”
By Danielle Bolte
Sarah was thrilled. She was finally bringing her horses home, to her very own farm. She’d bought it herself, and gotten an excellent deal for a dream come true. As she eased the truck and trailer down the driveway, she reveled in the view of the nearly new two stall barn peeking out between the trees lining the driveway, a cute cottage perched just to its right. Fenced fields lined either side of the narrow gravel path, just waiting for Sonny and Rascal to graze. Parking in front of the barn, she jumped out of the truck, lead ropes in hand, to unload and settle the horses in their new home.
With the horses settled out in the pasture, Sarah unloaded the trailer, aligning the trunks neatly beneath the saddle racks in the tack room, clean bridles figure-eighted and hanging on the opposite wall. As she was setting up the feed room, the distinctive sound of hoofbeats on concrete reverberated through the barn. Dropping the feed bag she was emptying upside down into the trash can, Sarah turned quickly to the door – she must have forgotten to latch the pasture gate, or maybe there was a hole in the fence she had missed.
Looking around the doorjamb, she saw neither Sonny’s bay coat, nor the distinctive paint coloring of Rascal’s. There was no horse in the aisle. Surprised, but assuming they had continued out the front of the barn, she stepped quickly to the door. Scanning the lawn and treeline from left to right, her eyes skipping past the cottage and the truck and trailer, she looked in vain for the horses. Looking to the right where the pasture lay, she saw her two horses grazing contentedly in the sunlight – inside the fenced pasture.
“Well, that was odd,” Sarah muttered to herself as she returned to the feed room, eyes still scanning the barn aisle and the roof line for anything else that might have made the sounds she’d heard. Hearing and seeing nothing further, she finished setting up her feed room and headed into her new cottage, with its light yellow exterior and large windows looking out over the barn and pasture. It had been a long day, and she was ready for a good night’s sleep.
But it was not to be. Near midnight, she was awakened by the sound of hoofbeats on concrete, the distinctive rhythm and sound jolting her awake and sending her scrambling for the door. Slipping her muck boots on and grabbing a flashlight, she headed out into the yard, swinging the flashlight side to side, searching for her escapees. Sonny had always been talented at finding ways out of fencing; he must have found a weak spot and gone exploring. As she hurried across the yard, the flashlight highlighted the neatly mown grass and mulched shrubs, and reflected off her red truck, but it didn’t reveal any loose horses. Rascal was normally easy to find with his bright white patches. They must have gone behind the barn.
Hurrying to the barn and flicking on the lights, she headed out the back door. Swinging the flashlight across the yard as she came out the door, she saw empty grass, fencing….and her two horses, looking at her over the fence, from inside their pasture. Cautious, she walked over to them and scratched their foreheads, talking to them quietly and continuing to shine the flashlight across the yard. But there was nothing there. She tarried a few more minutes, watching their body language and looking and listening for any sign of the loose horse, but when she didn’t hear or see anything further, she retraced her steps back to the cottage, turning the barn lights off on the way.
Two days later, Sarah steered the truck down the driveway with one eye on the darkening clouds and the other on the wind-lashed trees. She was later getting home from work than she had hoped, and it was going to be a race to see if she could get the horses in and fed before the storm broke. She drove directly to the barn and jumped out of the truck, calling the geldings as she entered the barn and flipped on the lights. They were already on their way to the gate, anticipating dinner.
Striding through the barn, she grabbed both halters and met the geldings at the gate behind the barn. Normally she fed them outside since they were easy keepers and got along well, but with the weather brewing into a hurricane, tonight they would come into the barn for the first time. She had bedded their stalls with fresh shavings and filled the water buckets and hay racks that morning before work.
She quickly haltered both horses and swung the gate wide, leading them forward and steering them the short distance towards the barn doors. Rascal, the younger of the two, tugged on the lead rope, dancing sideways in the strong wind, but with a quick tug on the lead rope she got both of them pointed forward, and the trio walked quickly towards the shelter of the barn. At the threshold, Sonny, usually the easier of the two, suddenly stopped, head up and ears pricked.
Startled, Sarah turned to look at him, putting pressure on the lead rope, “Come on, boy, let’s get inside.” When he continued to stand there, she glanced back towards the empty barn, and then turned back to him. “What is it boy? Come on, let’s go,” she encouraged.
Suddenly Sonny let out a deep nicker and strode purposefully forward, surprising Sarah and Rascal, who was antsy, watching the trees swaying in the gusting wind. There was a moment of confusion as she juggled lead ropes and got herself and Rascal moving in sync with Sonny’s determined steps. As she finished straightening Rascal’s lead rope in her left hand, out of the corner of her eye she saw a large dark shape, immediately recognizable as a horse, standing in the middle of the barn, ears pricked towards Sonny.
Startled, she pulled both horses to a halt and jerked her head up, looking straight down the now empty barn aisle. Sonny, who had been tugging her forwards, stopped. Glancing side to side, Sarah cautiously led the horses the rest of the way into the barn, letting Rascal into the first stall and bolting it, then allowing Sonny into the second, her eyes still scanning the barn, looking for the dark horse.
The next morning dawned still and gray, but the rain had tapered off overnight. Sonny and Rascal were eagerly awaiting their breakfast, heads hanging over their half doors with ears pricked as Sarah entered the barn. Cautiously scanning the barn, Sarah went about her morning routine, but she saw no further sign of the dark horse. Finally, she left the horses to their breakfast and returned to the cottage for a cup of coffee and her own breakfast while she waited for the farrier to arrive.
The big pickup truck eased down the driveway half an hour later, and Sarah met her long-time farrier John out at the barn.
“Nice place you’ve got here, Sarah,” John complimented as he stepped out of the truck, glancing around.
“Thank you,” Sarah said, although perhaps less enthusiastically than she would have the week before. “The horses have settled in well.”
As John got to work unloading his tools and began trimming Sonny, he and Sarah chatted about his other clients and her intentions with the property. She mentioned wanting to put in an arena in one area, and clear out some of the old trails, which had become overgrown.
John suddenly set the hoof he was working on down and turned to look at her. “You be careful, clearing around here,” he said seriously.
Curious and startled by his manner, Sarah cocked her head and asked, “Why?”
John looked at her consideringly, and then asked, “What do you know about the people who owned this place before?”
“Not much,” Sarah shrugged. “Why?” She was curious if this might have something to do with the dark horse.
“Well, they had some real bad luck out here. A couple of their horses are probably buried out back there somewhere, that’s all. I’d just be careful what you’re clearing.” Then he bent back down to Sonny’s hoof and continued working, giving Sarah plenty to think about.
During her lunch break the next day, Sarah found the emails from the closing, looking for the previous owners’ names. There. Mark and Robin. Curious, she browsed the internet while she ate her salad, looking for any information on them and their farm. She found precious little; there was no farm website, but she did find the previous sales records on the property. It appeared Mark and Robin had owned the property for nearly twenty years. They were registered with USEF and had been active in the Quarter Horse breeding world, and there were several show reports listing them as the owners of horses winning in breeding and performance classes. One mare in particular caught Sarah’s eye, a big dark bay mare who had been a champion hunter under saddle horse, named Dixieland Delight. Pursuing a pleasant sideline, Sarah looked for more information on the mare, finding her pedigree and show record as well as other photographs in short articles listing show results.
Nearly at the end of her lunch hour, she came across an article from the local paper, buried in the search results. The headline read “Extensive Damage from Overnight Storms,” but sure enough, the mare’s name was highlighted in the search information. Curious, Sarah clicked on the link, and scanned through the storm damage report, finally finding what she was looking for several paragraphs in. There was only one short sentence, “Several trees fell at a farm on Dixie Drive, crushing the barn and killing two horses, one of whom was Dixieland Delight, a champion Quarter Horse mare.”
Shocked, Sarah sat and stared out across the park where she was sitting, setting her phone down in her lap, her salad forgotten on the bench beside her, seeing the almost new barn on her property with new eyes.
As Sarah drove down her driveway that night, her eyes fell on the barn and her two horses grazing contentedly in the pasture in front of it. They picked their heads up as the truck rolled down the driveway, and then returned to the grass, freshened by the recent rains. Glancing up at the sky, Sarah saw the clouds building yet again; they had had one of the wettest summers on record, with round after round of severe storms. It looked like the horses would need to come in for dinner again – Rascal likely wouldn’t eat in a storm.
Pulling to a stop in front of the barn, Sarah jumped out and headed through the barn, grabbing the halters on her way. She brought the horses in and got them fed and settled with fresh hay and water before heading to the cottage to grab her own dinner. She had just entered the house when the storm broke, the trees blowing nearly in half and the rain streaming sideways in sheets. Thankful the horses were already taken care of, she turned to lock the door behind herself, and habitually glanced towards the barn, enjoying the view of the barn from her front door. For just a moment she thought she saw the dark shape of a horse in the barn aisle through the rain, but when she looked closer, squinting through the rain, there was nothing there. Mentally shaking herself, Sarah went about her evening routine and waited for the storm to pass.
Finally around 9:00 the storm blew itself out. Quickly checking the weather forecast, Sarah was relieved to see the rest of the night looked clear, and she headed out the front door – the horses could go back out for the night. She kept her eyes on the steps, still unfamiliar in the dark, and on the dark ground of the yard. As she neared the gravel driveway, she lifted her head and prepared to call out a greeting to the horses, but the words died on her lips. In the barn aisle, nose to nose with Sonny, was the dark figure of a horse. Rascal, normally such a busybody, was not in evidence, but Sonny was fascinated, neck arched and nose extended towards the dark horse, nostrils quivering with nearly silent nickers.
Sarah stood just at the edge of the driveway, stunned. Unthinking, she took a step forward to get a closer look, but as soon as her footsteps crunched on the gravel of the driveway, the apparition vanished. Striding quickly forward, she flicked on the barn lights, but there was no horse in the aisle. Sonny looked at her curiously, and next to him Rascal’s head popped up over the stall door, the mouthful of hay he was chewing sticking out at the sides. Shaken, Sarah walked over to Sonny and stroked his cheek, looking carefully around the barn again. But there was nothing there.
Efficiently, Sarah let the two horses back out and closed the barn up for the night, shutting the stall doors and turning the lights off. There was something teasing the edge of her mind, some subconscious connection that she hadn’t made yet. Puzzling over the events of the evening, she went to her desk drawer and retrieved her file folder filled with Sonny’s information. Flipping through the documents, she finally removed his AQHA papers. There, in black and white, was his dam’s name – Dixieland Delight.
Sarah stared at it for a moment, stunned. Then she checked the date. Sonny was born the same year the paper had reported on the storm damage in the small community. Hands shaking, Sarah retrieved her phone and pulled up her browser history. The storm had hit in June of that year. Sonny had been born in April. He would have been in the barn with his dam when that storm hit.
Shaken, Sarah sat staring across the room, processing what this meant. Only Sonny seemed to be able to see the dark horse. Rascal hadn’t reacted on the way into the barn the first night, nor had he paid any attention to the presence of the horse that night. Sonny was the registered son of the mare reported as dying on the farm. He would have been so young, he would have been at her side when the storm hit, and had somehow survived the tree falling on the barn. As impossible as it seemed, could the dark horse be the mare’s ghost, checking on her foal, who had now returned to the farm of his birth?
That night, when Sarah was awakened by the sound of hooves on the concrete barn aisle, she smiled to herself. She knew it was just Dixie, checking on her son.