THE YOUNG BUCKSKIN QUARTER HORSE stood perfectly still as the needle slid into his neck. One black-tipped ear tilted back. "Good boy, Chico," the vet said. She pressed the plunger and withdrew the needle.
That would be the last shot, Chico knew. He'd now been through this four times, once for each year of his life. Every year, just as the spring grass would begin to smell unbearably fresh and good, this woman would come. Each horse would be led out of the paddock in turn--Chico's mother, sister, older brothers, and finally him. The vet would look him over, then sting him like a fly, once in each haunch and once on the neck. Other than the stings, she was quiet and pleasant, and like most people, she admired Chico. He could tell by the tone of her voice, though he didn't understand all the words.
As the needle slid out of Chico's neck muscle this time, the vet reached into her pocket, and Chico nickered. The last sting was always followed by a carrot, or once, an apple--
Carrot this year. Good. Chico crunched it, nodding his head with every bite. His life had too much sameness, but this kind of sameness he liked.
Any other year Dean, his owner, would unsnap the cross-ties and lead Chico back to where his family gathered at the round-bale feeder in the barren, packed-earth paddock, swishing their tails, feeling the warmth and shove of each others' bodies, listening to the peaceful crunch of hay and their own slowing heartbeats. They calmed down more quickly with Chico there. The youngest, he was also the bravest. A young male's job in every horse herd was to investigate threats and drive them off. Chico charged into this task with zest. He challenged blowing sheets of newspaper and aimless umbrellas fearlessly, and his greatest joy was driving out stray dogs that wandered into the paddock. That didn't happen often enough. He needed a bigger job--a bigger life!
But today, instead of leading Chico back to his family, Dean stood talking with the vet and the girl she'd brought with her.
The girl didn't seem to be listening to the grown-ups talk. A slim teenager with dark curls springing out from under her cowboy hat, she hung back and didn't say much, just gazed at Chico with shining eyes. She was excited. He could feel it.
But what did it have to do with him? He looked out the open barn door, past the girl, past the vet's truck and the horse trailer she'd brought this time, smelling and listening for what lay beyond.
Past Dean's suburban ranch house was another just like it, surrounded by grass instead of dirt and horse fence. Past that was another house, and another, in all directions.
But beyond the houses--Chico's nostrils flared as he tested the wind. Beyond was a vastness, an enormous stretch of grass. Early spring was when he could smell it most.
The grass out there was different. It had a wild, pungent scent. Out there was a big sky and animals of some kind--grass-eaters, many grass-eaters, and meat-eaters, too, the wild dogs Dean called "coyotes," which sometimes slunk through the neighborhood. Chico had never seen the vast grassland, but it filled his mind, exciting to think of, impossible to reach.
His whole life had been this five-acre Laramie, Wyoming, ranchette, with its bare paddock. Dean took good care of his horses. There was hay and cool water. There was a round pen with a deep sand footing, where he had taught Chico to be ridden--and that was about all.
Once or twice a week, Dean trailered Chico to a big indoor riding arena and rode him. That should have beeninteresting. But Dean just raced Chico in circles, and got upset.
Chico liked going fast and stopping fast--but, after a while, what was the point? They never got anywhere, just went around and around in the same old patterns. Boring, but Dean got angry when Chico thought of shortcuts. Then they'd both come home grumpy.
"I've got too many horses and not enough money," Dean was telling the vet, "and I've soured this one on reining." He gave Chico an apologetic pat. "My fault--he's so athletic. He's always seemed like a horse that needed a job, but running patterns isn't real enough for him. I mean--a cowboy doesn't run patterns. He works. But I'm no cowboy, just an amateur breeder who wants to do some showing on weekends and--anyway, bottom line, if you'd take him in a trade against my vet bill, I'd be most grateful."
The vet turned and walked thoughtfully around Chico, as if she'd never seen him before. In a way she hadn't. It was just this past winter that Chico had really grown into himself. At two, his hind legs were longer than his front legs. At three, he'd looked nice, but unfinished.
Now, through the loosening winter hair, it was possible to see what a fine quarter horse he'd become; about fifteen hands, muscular, well-balanced, with a handsome, self-confident head and wise eyes. His body was the color of buckwheat honey, his mane and tail and legs coalblack--and splashed up each leg, as if he'd galloped through milk, was a long white stocking. A white blaze made a lightning streak down the middle of his face.
The vet said, "It's one of the top ten rules you learn in vet school. Never accept an animal in payment of a bill!" Dean made one of his pretending-I'm-not-worried noises. "But," she went on, "if you have a thirteen-year-old daughter, you understand that rules change!"
"The horses are my kids," Dean said, "and I guess you're right!"
"We've just started looking for a horse for Sierra," the vet said. "Her little sister is pushing to inherit the quarter pony, and we had to put our nice gelding down this spring--" She cleared her throat. "Anyway, Sierra wants to get into cutting--"
Dean said, "Chico's never even seen a cow!"
"But he's got great bloodlines," the girl said suddenly. Chico had almost forgotten she was there. "I mean--his grandmother was a champion, right? I looked his pedigree up online," she explained, sounding a bit embarrassed.
Her mother said, "Our neighbor--Misty Lassiter--has offered to help Sierra bring a horse along. Maybe you've heard of her--she's a top cutting horse trainer."
"That's great," Dean said, looking at Sierra. "I've been trying to make Chico into a reining horse, because--hey, I don't care if it is Wyoming! This is a suburb. Do you seeany cows around here? But maybe he wants to be a cutting horse like his grandma. Want to take him for a spin?"
Sierra nodded, and Dean saddled Chico. They all went out to the round pen and Sierra mounted.
No one but Dean had ever gotten onto Chico before. The horse turned his head to sniff Sierra's foot, just to make sure he wasn't imagining this. No, she was up there all right!
She was small and light, and they spent a long time adjusting the stirrups for her. Then it was circles--pretty much all you could do in a round pen was circles. Walk, jog, lope.
Sierra asked, "Could I take him out on the street?"
"Sure." Dean opened the gate. Sierra pointed Chico out the driveway and along the flat street, past the backyards, houses, shrubs, and dogs that he knew so well. Chico enjoyed the clip-clop of his own hooves on pavement, and the sights; laundry, cats, cars, bikes. Right turn, right turn, right turn, right turn, and he was back at his own driveway. Sierra got off.
"Well?" her mother asked, and then laughed. "Dumb question! I can see it in your eyes!" She turned to Dean. "All right. I'll take Chico in cancellation of your outstanding vet bill, and we'll see if we can turn him into a cutting horse."
Dean slumped in relief. "You'll like him a lot. He's assteady as they come. He's just too much horse for a little place like this."
For a while they were busy signing papers. Then the vet led Chico to the strange trailer.
He always walked right onto his own trailer, but Chico stopped to think about getting onto this one. It had open slats in the sides. That was different. It smelled like some unfamiliar animal--the same beyond animals Chico often smelled on the wind. It was a warm, heavy, sweet scent--definitely of a grass-eater. Was one of the animals still lurking in there? Did they really expect him to go in with it? Chico braced his front hooves just outside the trailer door. Ignoring the vet's gentle pull on his halter and Dean's firm hand pushing on his butt, he snuffed the air deeply.
There was hay in the trailer, too. Good hay. It smelled wild, like flowers and wind and sky, and it made Chico feel hungry all over. But if the animal was in there--
"Sierra," the vet said. "Go open the other side door so he can see."
In a moment, golden sunlight flooded the trailer, and Chico saw that it was empty, except for a full hay net hanging at the front. He stepped one foot up, then another. The hollow sounds inside were the same as in Dean's trailer. The wall slats made it airier and not as dark. In a moment, Chico was all the way in, tearing his first mouthful of hay out of the net. The grasses were fine-stemmed, fragrant,perfectly cured. He snatched a second bite, noticing in a distant way that they had fastened the butt-chain, clipped the trailer ties onto his halter, closed the back door and one side door.
"All set?" Dean came to the front of the trailer. "I'll miss you." He tried to pat Chico's blaze. Chico pushed past him for another grassy mouthful.
"Hey!" Dean said, catching him by the halter for a moment. "You're getting a second chance here, kid, and those don't come along every day. Don't blow it!"
THE TRUCK ROLLED SMOOTHLY UP THROUGH the hills toward the Medicine Bow Mountains. Mom drove carefully, glancing often in her side mirror. Sierra stared straight ahead, dazed and unfocused. Three days ago, having her own quarter horse was just a dream. Three days ago, she'd been wondering if Queenie, the quarter pony at home she'd learned to ride on, could possibly be her cutting horse. Then Dean called Mom, suggesting this trade. Sierra had spent every spare moment since then online, researching Chico's pedigree and watching cutting videos--especially Misty Lassiter's.
Misty was the reason for all of this. Sierra had seen her first cutting competition only last fall, at Misty's place, and suddenly understood that she lived next door to achampion. From the crown of her big hat to the worn tips of her cowboy boots, Misty was a Wyoming cowgirl, hardworking, down-to-earth, pretty, young, and tough. Not until she saw Misty's lounge full of trophies did Sierra understand that Misty was also a rock star in the cutting world.
Sierra was just starting to be proud to be a fourth-generation rancher. If only she could be useful in Dad's one-man ranch operation. She'd always loved horses, but she was ready for something a little more challenging than trail riding. Cutting was the answer to both wishes. With an offer of training help from Misty, all she needed was a horse. And now she had one.
What would Misty say when she saw Chico? She'd be impressed, of course. How could she not be? "Bring him over and we'll start training," she'd probably say. Beyond that--she'd hang the ribbons she and Chico would come to win on the wall opposite her bed, Sierra decided, so they'd be the first thing she saw every morning. And if--no, when--they won a silver championship belt buckle, she'd wear it every day, like it was no big deal.
THE HAY WAS GONE, EVERY FRAGRANT WISP, AND now Chico smelled snow on the early-spring air, and pine and mountain flowers.
The trailer was still climbing. The truck engine sounded loud, and the floor under Chico sloped, up and up, and sometimes steeply down, around sharp curves. The unknown-animal smell was strong again.
The truck slowed and turned, and Chico recognized the sound it made when it was going to stop. About time! He banged one hoof against the trailer wall. That usually brought Dean back to check on him, but nothing happened this time.
The tires crunched over gravel, a dog barked, and a young girl shouted, "Mom! You guys took forever!"
"An hour longer than usual," Sierra's mother said. "We were pulling a horse trailer."
Everything came to a stop. The stillness felt beautiful for an instant. Then Chico banged the trailer wall again, and whinnied. Get me out of here! I have to pee! He had never peed in a trailer before and he didn't want to start now. Too splashy!
"It's all right, Chico, we're coming," Mom said. A moment later, the doors opened. Chico looked past Sierra and her mother. He saw the young girl, a stocky, big-eared dog, a man in a cowboy hat, a rail fence--
"Wow!" the girl said. "He's beautiful!"
"He may be upset," Mom said, appearing beside Sierra. "He's never taken a long trailer ride before." She snapped alead rope into Chico's halter. "Addie, are you out of the way? All right, Sierra."
The chain behind Chico released, and he backed out of the trailer, curving his neck to see over his shoulder even before his four feet touched the ground.
So much space! So much sky! This was what he'd always sensed, out beyond. Behind the house and behind the pastures, the trees marched up the sides of sharp-toothed mountains, strong, rocky, and splashed with snow.
Here in the yard, everything was made of logs; log house, log barn, a maze of log corrals--
A horse whinnied. Chico swiveled his head. In one corral, a small mare craned her neck to reach over a gate. She greeted Chico. Who are you?
Chico whinnied back. Who are you?
He wanted to charge over and greet her. He wanted to prance and dance and wiggle, shake the fidgets out of his legs. But Dean had taught him not to do that with a human attached to his halter. Chico made himself stand still and sent a loud whinny ringing out across the pasture.
An unfamiliar rectangular shape lifted its head.
It was an animal! They were all animals!
After a moment, several of them came sauntering toward him. They were small in the distance, and he couldn't tell what they might be--but not horses. Definitely not horses.
Vaguely he sensed Sierra coming closer, holding out the flat of her hand near his muzzle. Quickly, politely, he pushed his nose into her palm for a second. She said something. He couldn't hear it because the animals were getting closer. They were much bigger than he'd realized--monstrous beasts. Their hooves rumbled. One stuck its tail in the air, a thin ropy tail with a brush on the end, and shook its head. There were ... things on its head, white curving sticks--
"Mom!" Sierra said. "I can hear his heart beating!"
"Step back, Sierra," Mom said. "This Wyoming quarter horse is about to meet his first cow!"
CHICO'S CHALLENGE. Copyright © 2011 by Reeves International, Inc. All rights reserved. by Quad/Graphics, Fairfield, Pennsylvania. For information, address Feiwel and Friends, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.