In honor of spooky season, we’re kicking off our Halloween short stories a day early! First, read about the curse of the Whitehorse Valley.
By Sarah Welk Baynum
Izzy Adams gave her horse, Nova, a pat on the neck as she pulled the saddle from her back. A crisp, cool, October breeze blew leaves through the barn aisle of Whitehorse Valley Equestrian Center, reminding her fall was officially here. Izzy cringed, realizing summer was officially gone and winter was a few short months away. As much as she loved being an onsite working student, she definitely loved it a little less when she was smashing frozen water buckets.
“You’re still coming on the haunted trail ride to Whitehorse Valley, right? Or are you too scared?” a voice said behind her asked. Izzy turned toward the voice and saw her barn mate, Ella, standing with her arms folded across her chest, smirking.
Izzy blew out an exasperated breath as she set the saddle on its stand. “Oh please, there is no such thing as ghosts — or hauntings. But I will be there to enjoy what’s left of the nice weather,” Izzy retaliated with a smirk of her own.
Ella shook her head from side to side. “You know what happened on the trail ride last year, don’t you?”
Izzy rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t here then, but I heard all about Lola’s tall tale…”
Ella gasped before interrupting Izzy. “It wasn’t a tall tale! That’s why she left the barn after that – she was totally haunted!”
Izzy reminded herself that Ella was years younger — and definitely more gullible — then she was. Whatever caused Lola to leave Whitehorse Valley Equestrian Center in the first place was the reason Izzy now had her working student position. Izzy’s expression softened as she turned back toward Ella. “I’m sure she just got a full time job at a barn somewhere else. That’s what the barn manager told me when I was hired.”
Ella’s eyes narrowed defensively. “That’s just what she told people so she wouldn’t look scared out of her mind…. but she told me the real truth.”
Izzy let out a sigh. “Ok Ell, and what exactly is this real truth?”
Ella stepped closer to Izzy, leaning in. “The ghost horses haunted her after she saw them near the cemetery in Whitehorse Valley. After that, she was haunted by them. You know that’s why they call it Whitehorse Valley in the first place, right? Because of the white ghost horses! The ghost horses aren’t just a tall tale!”
Izzy smiled at Ella. What else could she say? Ella was convinced there was ghost horses that had run off the former working student and nothing Izzy said was going to change her mind. “You’ll see for yourself tomorrow — there is no such thing as ghost horses in the valley. I promise.”
Ella shook her head and turned to walk back down the barn aisle. “You’ll see… the ghost horses are real and I’m going to prove it!” Ella called over her shoulder.
* * *
Izzy took in a deep breath of cool, early evening air as they headed down the trail toward the opening of Whitehorse Valley. Leaves crunched under her mare’s hooves as she and the other riders plodded along.
The leaves were at the peak of their change and boasted colors of reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows on the trees they passed by.
Izzy could hear Ella a few riders ahead rambling on about looking for the ghost horses when they neared the entrance of the valley: “…and some say the horses are protecting something — maybe a secret. What secret, you know? Lola was the only one who saw them last year. Why do you think that is?”
Izzy chuckled under her breath at Ella’s ramblings. She felt sorry for the riders directly in front of or behind Ella who had to listen to her go on and on about childish ghost stories.
For a few minutes there was finally a break in the endless slew of questions from Ella. The trail fell silent other than the crunching of leaves and soft sounds of her horses breathing beneath her.
“That’s it – the cemetery,” Ella said breathlessly.
Izzy turned in the direction Ella was pointing. Through the half-bare trees and brush she could see the tops of the old, worn looking graves.
“How old is that cemetery?” someone asked behind Izzy.
Ella’s eyes lit up with excitement. “I did some research and it’s hundreds of years old! They say some of the nearby towns’ first residents were buried there – some even in unmarked graves.”
Izzy pressed her lips together. Oh Ella – she had really bought into this whole ghost situation. Had Lola been messing with poor young Ella last year when she told her those ghost stories? It seemed like maybe Lola had taken advantage of Ella’s age and naïveté.
They continued down the trail, and right at the point where they were almost past the cemetery, Izzy felt her horse’s muscles tensing beneath her. Nova froze, ears pricked, panic snorting. “Nova, it’s ok – just some leaves in the wind,” Izzy cooed, stroking the horses neck. But Nova continued to stay tense and frozen in place despite her rider asking her to move forward. Izzy waived the other riders ahead of her. “Sorry, she’s just green – I’m sure she will snap out of it once you all are ahead of me on the trail.” Maybe once her friends were leaving her Nova would realize that was worse than whatever it was she was spooking at.
But Izzy began to worry when Nova remained frozen in place, her ears pointed in the direction of the cemetery. “Ella is going to have a field day with this! She’s going to assume Nova was staring at some invisible ghost horses and…” Izzy began to think, but her thoughts were interrupted by something bright white moving in the distance. She squinted her eyes, her mind racing as she tried to place the image. But the more she stared at it, the more she couldn’t deny that the figure looked like a white horse. “Ella’s ghost stories are playing tricks on my mind,” she began to think.
Her horse bolting in the direction of the strange, white horse looking image interrupted her thoughts. Izzy barely stayed on her horse’s back as Nova continued galloping past the cemetery, the headstones blurring past her. “Nova! Whoa!” Izzy called out, pulling back on the reins. Nova finally slowed, then halted, her nostrils open and blowing. “Nova, what was that? Since when do you bolt?”
Izzy’s jaw hung open as her eyes took in the scene in front of her. A herd of five, bright white horses stood a little ways from them, staring at her with curious expressions. Izzy was sure she had never seen horses this white – especially not five in the same place. And strangely enough, that place was the middle of somewhere called Whitehorse Valley. Her mind buzzed as it took in the information. Could Ella have been telling the truth this whole time?
Maybe the legends were true – since she was currently staring down five white horses in front of her. Perhaps Lola had seen this herd of white horses and had made the whole ghost story part up to scare Ella.
“Izzy! Izzy are you ok!?” Someone was shouting for her in the distance. They probably thought she had been dumped by her bolting horse by now. Luckily for Izzy, she had a very sticky seat.
Izzy turned around in her saddle, calling back to the voice in the distance. “I’m fine! I’m coming!”
As she tuned back around, she noticed the white horses were nowhere to be seen – like they had simply vanished. “They didn’t just vanish – they probably just spooked when you started yelling,” she reasoned with herself. But Izzy couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of not hearing the horses galloping away, especially considering all the leaves on the ground.
She pushed those concerns from her mind and turned her horse back toward where her friends were calling to her from the trail.
“There’s no such thing as ghost horses,” she reminded herself.
* * *
No matter how hard she tried, Izzy couldn’t get the image of the mysterious white horses from her mind. At first, she tried to deny what she knew to be true – the horses had practically vanished into thin air in the two seconds she had turned away from them without a sound. No leaves crunching beneath their hooves – nothing. How was that even possible? “It’s not – you’re losing your mind,” she thought more than once. Maybe she was. But despite the two hours she had been lying in bed, the thoughts of the white horses kept her awake.
The sound of a horse in distress pawing in the barn below her staff apartment had her turning over in bed. “Oh no – is someone colicking?” she thought.
Izzy groaned, rolling out of bed as she slipped her rubber boots on, not bothering to change from her pajamas. It was almost one in the morning and no one else would be in the barn anyway. Izzy trudged down the creaky wooden stairs that led from her apartment to the barn, flicking on the aisle light. The horses’ surprised, wide eyed stares looked back at her. The only horse whose head wasn’t hanging out of her stall door was Nova. Izzy jogged down the barn aisle praying Nova wasn’t colicking. But when she arrived at her stall, she noticed Nova looked sweaty and stressed, but not in a colicky way. Instead, the mare’s gaze was fixed on something she could see outside of her stall window. “What is it, Nova?” Izzy whispered, placing a hand on the mare’s sweaty neck as she peered out of the stall window too.
A gasp caught in Izzy’s throat when she saw four of the five white horses standing near the tree lining at the edge of the farm. The moon was bright and full above them — so bright the horses were casting shadows on the ground below them. Her heart began hammering in her chest. She could try and tell herself she was seeing things, but what good would it do? They were right there in front of her.
Izzy watched as one of the horses turned around to face the woods, its nose pointed in the direction of the wooded valley – and the cemetery that was buried deep within it. The horse looked over its shoulder, looking directly at Izzy. It stood there, staring at her a moment before letting out a loud nicker. Izzy shivered – had the temperature suddenly dropped? She shoved her hands in her sweatshirt pocket.
Was the horse trying to tell her something? “Maybe these aren’t ghost horses after all? Maybe they are just regular horses who need help – what if one of them is hurt?” she thought. Where was the fifth horse anyway?
Izzy wasn’t sure what came over her, but she suddenly found herself putting Nova’s halter and lead rope on. She tied the other end of the lead rope to her halter, and lead her from her stall. Before she could talk herself out of it, Izzy was pushing herself off the ground and using Nova’s mane to pull herself the rest of the way onto her back. “I’m just going to walk her out there bareback and get a better look at these horses so I can see once and for all they are just regular horses – not ghost horses,” she thought.
At least, that was her plan. But the moment Izzy was situated on her back, Nova went bolting across the pasture toward the white horses – again. The only sound she could hear as they galloped into the darkness was the rhythmic breathing and thudding of her horse’s hooves beneath her as she ate up the ground toward the white horses. Izzy hoped Nova would slow to a stop once she reached the other horses like she had before.
But Izzy’s heart began racing with panic when she saw the white horses turning on their haunches as they galloped into the dark forest with Nova at their heels. Izzy dodged branches and used all her strength to stay on Nova’s back as they wound full speed through the trees.
Finally she felt Nova’s pace slowing to a stop, but Izzy’s heart rate continued a mile a minute when she saw where they had halted – the cemetery.
The fifth white horse could be seen now, standing in the farthest corner of the cemetery. Izzy clucked to Nova, asking her to walk forward. Was the fifth white horse injured? She was already all the way out here – she may as well be sure. The white horse stared directly at her, ears swiveling. He appeared to be completely unharmed, to her relief. But as soon as she got close, he turned and walked in the opposite direction. Nova followed a few paces behind him, seeming curious. “Where is he taking us, Nova?” Izzy whispered, sure her heart might beat right out of her chest at any moment. Her hands gripped the makeshift lead rope reins, turning her hands as white as the horse that led them further into the darkness.
Finally, he stopped, shifting silently to his right as if moving out of the way so Izzy could see what was in front of him – another grave. This one was set far away from the others, and was covered almost completely in vines and foliage. She probably wouldn’t have noticed it had the horse not led her directly to it. Was he trying to tell her something? What was it about this grave that had the blood draining from her face suddenly and an eerie feeling settling in the cemetery around her?
Izzy’s gaze was fixed on the grave, but she knew getting off her horse and pushing aside the foliage would be the only way to truly investigate it. Izzy paused for half a second, then slid from Nova’s back.
She held tight to the reins and she walked slowly towards the grave, using one hand to pull the vines from the front of the stone. Her eyes ran over the revealed words hand-carved into the stone:
Restless are the spirits of the white horses. Here they lay, forever protecting the valley’s secret. Time decides those who see them, chosen by fate — call out their names and set them free.”
She read the inscription aloud. Her gaze landed on the bottom of the stone, where, in fine print, five names were listed beside each other.
Izzy felt her throat tighten, her hands feeling cold and clammy. It was real then – they really were ghost horses. Had no one, all these years later, followed the horses like she had to this stone and read their names aloud? Had Lola been chosen and fled instead of following them here? Had Nova somehow innately sensed the ghost horses needed her help to be at peace?
Izzy never believed in ghosts – not until now, that is. But how could she deny what was right in front of her? How could she not set aside her fear and denial to try and set them free?
Izzy drew in a long, slow breath as she began reading off the white horses names. “Ramiel. Ariel. Zadkiel. Uriel. Castiel.”
Izzy paused, waiting. At first, nothing happened. Then, the white horse that led her to the grave turned on its haunches and walked slowly away from her. She followed on foot, leading Nova behind her. The horse stopped when he reached what looked like the base of a mountain cliff, turning around to meet her gaze and let out a low nicker.
Izzy blinked, and in that half a moment when her eyes opened again, the horse had vanished. Izzy looked back to where the others had been standing not far from her – all gone.
But where the horse had been standing at the cliff’s base, she saw the narrow entrance to a cave. Izzy pushed the hanging foliage aside, peering into the darkness. She pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight, gasping in the dim light as she scanned the inscriptions on the wall. Pictures and inscriptions that appeared hundreds of years old were streaked across the walls, telling the long forgotten story of the white horses.
The horses and the people that owned them founded the valley. The horses slept in the homes of their owners – keeping them warm and protecting them by alerting their owners of anyone who might be coming in the night. The horses were regarded as sacred to their people. But the horses weren’t just protecting the people. They were protecting something else – gold.
The settlers had been robbed on their way to the valley, and managed to escape with half of the gold they had discovered on their journey. But the men that robbed them eventually tracked them down, and violence was unleashed on the settlers one fateful October night. Many of the settlers lost their lives that night, and the cemetery was created for those lost souls. The settlers believed the white horses were special, magical even, and that they could protect them and the gold even beyond death. When the white horses passed away years later, they were buried together and a curse fell over the valley. The horses’ spirits were to protect the land and the people who were laid to rest there. That is, until one of the chosen, a descendant of the settlers, was called to lift the curse, find the hidden gold, and then set the white horses’ spirits free. But only the white horses’ spirits would know the location of the gold, and only when their spirits were set free would the chosen one be shown the gold.
Izzy sucked in a shaky breath, using her bare hands and a rock to begin digging where the horse had stood before vanishing into thin air. She dug until she felt the hard, wooden box beneath her fingertips. Izzy threw open the lid, the gold twinkling in the moon’s bright light.
Izzy smiled as she turned to Nova. “I know exactly what to do with this,” she said out loud.
She had been chosen to lift the curse and find the gold. The horses had protected it for hundreds of years, and horses deserved to benefit from it now.
“This gold is going to save a lot of horses,” she whispered to herself, staring out at the cemetery that suddenly looked a lot less eerie.