The land rose and fell before me as I climbed through a series of small ravines that had once been creeks and tributaries. At the top of one of these, I paused to soak in my surroundings.
The birds chirped and pecked, accepting me as one of the forest folk. It made me feel strangely accepted, and my heart was comforted. Perhaps here was where I belonged.
The rain from the night before made everything soft and supple. The oranges, reds, and golds of autumn leaves looked even more brilliant with water still clinging to them, and they contrasted against the wet bark of the trees. I inhaled the soft, musky-sweet scent, almost tasting it, as I scanned the horizon.
And then I saw him.
The burnished orange of his coat nearly melted into the backdrop of fall. His black mane fell over his neck, and he had a white spot on his forehead. A wild horse, I thought in awe, untethered by the restraints of man.
He stood like a statue, watching me. Only his ears flickered. His eyes were fixed on me with the serious curiosity of one sizing up a new neighbor. I held my breath.
After a moment, he lowered his head and blew a puff of air through his nostrils. I found myself doing the same. He lifted a back hoof and reached his muzzle around to scratch an itchy place on his hock. Then he blew another puff of air and turned away from me, stepping down into a ravine.
I followed him. I don't know why I followed him. Perhaps I craved companionship and was drawn to the almost human connection of his gaze. Perhaps I had some deluded imagining that he was offering to be my guide in this strange land. But, whatever the reason, I changed my course and traveled behind this horse.
And he let me follow him. Perhaps he sensed that I was not dangerous. Perhaps he had some noble thought of caring for me, or perhaps he merely felt a continuing curiosity about me. Perhaps he thought I was another horse in need of a herd. But, for whatever reason, he plodded along in front of me, always staying about 30 feet ahead of me.
Why am I following this horse? I wondered. I thought I hated authority. I thought I swore I would never follow anyone again.
But this was different. The people I had left behind cared nothing for me. They only cared about their agenda. They cared about what they could get out of me. I did not choose to follow them -- they forced my obedience. That's why I ran.
Yes, this was different, and I was grateful for a friend and a guide, even if it was a horse.
We walked two miles through the ravines before we came to a clear-water creek. The horse stopped to drink. I dropped to my belly, put my lips into the water, and drank. It was cool and refreshing. My pursuers were miles away, and for the first time since my escape, I let myself relax. It felt so good to lie on the wet ground without a care in the world.
The horse lifted his head from the stream and looked at me, drips of water falling from his muzzle. I laughed softly, more from the joy of being there with him than from anything funny. He flicked his ears and then scratched his hock again.
It seemed that we were going to stay at the stream for a while. I slowly got to my feet and approached the horse. He watched me warily but didn't run. In a matter of minutes I was close enough to touch him. His skin quivered.
What are you doing? I asked myself. This is nuts! This horse could kill you! I had once spent 2 months on a farm with horses, learning to ride. It was just enough to know how dangerous they can be.
Slowly I reached my hand out and touched his shoulder. His skin quivered again and he blew through his nose. Phphph. As he relaxed, I ran my hand along his side until I was in reach of his itchy hock. Gently I rubbed it. Ahh, his lower lip drooped and his eyes blinked sleepily. Apparently it felt really good.
After scratching his hock, I ran my hands over his back again. He had saddle scars. An idea popped into my head as I realized that, once upon a time, he had been ridden. With a horse to carry me, I could put a significant amount of distance between myself and my pursuers. I rubbed his neck as the idea spun wildly around in my head. He shifted nervously, sensing the change in my energy. But the idea seemed perfect to me, and I impulsively decided I would ride this horse.
My heart pounded with adrenaline and my breaths came quicker. I grasped a handful of his mane in one hand and took a deep breath. Now or never! With a surge of energy and purpose that shot through my body like electricity, I sprang from the ground, intending to leap onto the horse's back.
The next second passed in slow motion before my eyes. The horse squealed and wheeled away from me, ripping from my grasp and leaving a handful of black mane clenched in my fist. I fell to the ground, hitting hard and almost bouncing from the impact. Through the flashes of light that blurred my vision, I saw the horse disappearing into the forest at a full gallop.
For a moment, I lay dazed on the ground. Then slowly I checked my body. Thankfully nothing was broken. I would survive my act of stupidity.
Carefully I sat up. I felt more miserable than I had in a long time. The loss of my new-found friend hurt more than I cared to admit. I slid myself closer to a tree so I could lean against its base and wondered if I would ever see that horse again.
The birds were silent, as if in shock over what they had witnessed. I felt as an outsider again and, knowing I had no one else to blame, hated myself for it.
Saddle scars? I ran my fingers along my own set of scars. What kind of owner scars their horse? An owner like the people I had run away from? An owner who cares only for what he can get from a horse? A rider like I was about to be?
The feeling of affinity and sympathy with the horse that had likely escaped from a situation like mine mixed with a feeling of shame as I realized I was no better than the people I hated.
My shoulder ached. It had absorbed much of the force of my fall. I moved it gingerly -- again grateful that it wasn't broken. With a wince, I scanned the horizon, wishing for a glimpse of the horse.
I didn't want to be a boss and a master like the ones I had left behind. I wanted to be a leader, someone who could be trusted, someone who loved you, someone who would risk themselves to protect you. That's the kind of leader I wanted, and that is who I wanted to be for others.
I'll learn, I whispered to the forest. God help me. I will learn. God give me a second chance..."
I missed that horse.