I frolicked until I had gotten myself thoroughly separated from the other horses. Scattered whinnies around the valley told me the others had done the same. We’d had enough of single file. My newfound freedom was already convincing me: Horses were never meant to go single file.
As we made our reunion, I surveyed this sunsplashed valley that had caused such an abrupt change in our spirits. The once-ominous cliffs that had forced us to spend half the night pinned next to a dangerous river at their base were now far apart, merely a dark backdrop for thickening stands of flickering green aspen. The river, too, was transformed. In place of the raging tyrant, two harmless streams flowed at the foot of the cliffs on either side of the valley. While the trees followed the water, hugging the canyon walls, the center of the valley was a lush green meadow, and the grass was the finest I had ever tasted.
Our small group reassembled in the shade near one of the valley walls, where we plunged our noses into the clear, cold water. All of us, that is, except the dark horse. No one was particularly concerned about his absence at the time. He had frequently trotted on ahead of us, scouting out the best way forward.
As we fed and watered ourselves, I couldn’t help reflecting on the shocking changes that had occurred in my life in such a brief time. My mind clicked off the absurdities, one by one: Escaped the White Horse Ranch. Vaulted two fences. Galloped all night. Galloped a second night on sore muscles. Descended a steep canyon wall at midnight. Ran like a carefree foal along the very edge of a death dealing torrent. I had actually done these things! Me! The same horse that scarcely two suns ago had been content with a small stall, a daily grooming and a bale of hay. And here I was tearing up sweet grass from rich earth in the middle of an unknown canyon and loving it.
What happened next was sleep. Our full stomachs and the warm sun made us all lazy and forgetful of the dark horse’s warning to leave someone on guard. Had we kept someone awake, he would have surely noticed the developing grass fire that was burning from one side of the valley to the other and being driven straight toward us by a strong wind. We might have had time to cross the valley to the other side, but by the time the smoke reached our nostrils, we were wakened to a fire that covered the entire valley floor and was slowly forcing us back towards the gorge through which we had entered this place.
Now there is nothing more frightening to a horse than fire. Put fire before his eyes or the smell of smoke in his nostrils, and even the wisest horse dissolves into raving madness.
We would have trampled him — but for the fire in his eyes. Fire that flared hotter than the one from which we ran. There was dark horse, standing like a terrible sentinel, guarding our only exit from this burning valley.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he cried.
“Back from where we came,” two of us said at the same time. It was clearly the only way out.
“No!” said the dark horse, rolling his eyes and pursing his lips. “The White One never leads us back, only forward.”
“But that’s impossible! Forward is into the fire!”
“Then we go into the fire.”
“But we’ll perish,” I cried.
“That’s for him to decide. If he wants us to live, he will provide a way.”
For a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, we all fought with what he was asking us to do.
“Now! There is no more time! If you would follow the White One, follow me!” And he was off. Into the fire.
Somehow, I found myself running — running hard in the path of the dark horse. But it was like running through a hedge of thorns. Something was tearing at me, straining within me, fighting and warring with my nature.
Every time I threw my legs forward it was with pain. But the pain had nothing to do with resistant muscles — this was the pain of a resistant will. I was constantly fighting an overpowering influence to turn back — to save my life. Everything in me told me I shouldn’t be doing this. Everything but a new voice that sang encouragement to my spirit and urged me forward. And even as I listened, the voice sang louder. It was pure and clear and strong and bright. And it was winning.
Smoke clawed at my eyes. Hot gases seared my nostrils and tore at my heaving lungs. I closed my eyes and kept running against all reason. Or was I running at all? I felt like I was swimming — upstream — in a river of living flame.
Suddenly I was aware of a word. It wasn’t a voice speaking, just an impression coming from deep within me — from the same place where the new impulse had driven me to follow the dark horse into this storm of fire.
Of course. The stream!
Turning in the direction where I thought the nearest canyon wall would be, I galloped with everything I had left. Scant seconds before I would have passed out, I found myself falling into the stream like a flying ball of flame. It was a fall that helped to save me. The stream was shallow, but as I hit the water I rolled completely over, dousing any attempt of the fire to burn my hide.
I now knew that the water would be my salvation — I wasn’t going to die. But I had to find a deeper spot. Rising on miraculously uninjured legs, I splashed upstream. Somehow my strength held out until I reached a deep pool, where with one last desperate plunge, I was completely immersed in the cool water.
Horses are buoyant. Swimming is easy. And as I waited out the fire, my only remaining worry was the flaming debris from the trees above.
It was a slow, thorough fire. The flames seemed deliberate. Almost painstaking in their efforts to spare no living thing. Still, I was spared. And so was a small patch of grass along the river bank on which I threw myself into a long, exhausted sleep.