The old horse stepped through a shimmering curtain of angled rain, stately as a unicorn for all its diminutive size, muddy hide, overgrown hooves, tangled mane and too-prominent ribs.
Callie Dorset stood in front of her tilted rural mailbox, one of a row of them jutting from the ground like crooked teeth, a sheaf of bills and flyers clasped in one hand. She stared, momentarily trans-fixed, heedless of the downpour.
It couldn't be. Her childhood pony had been sold off years ago, along with most of the family ranch. Taken somewhere far away, in a gleaming horse trailer from an auction house, never to return.
And yet here he was.
Callie stuck the mail back into the box, slogged down one side of the grassy ditch separating her from the horse and up the other, then stood close to the rusty barbed-wire fence, spellbound.
"Cherokee?" she said, aloud this time, the name barely audible over the fire-sound of the relentless spring rain.
He nickered, nuzzled her shoulder.
Callie felt almost faint, stricken with a hopeless joy. Her hand shook as she reached out to caress his soft, pink-spotted nose.
She repeated his name, wonderstruck.
Blinked a couple of times, in case she was seeing things.
Somehow, he had found his way back.
Behind her, snug in the ancient Blazer, Callie's seven-year-old daughter, Serena, rolled down the passenger-side window. "Mom!" she shouted, in her sometimes slurred, always exuberant voice. "You're getting wet!"
Callie turned, drenched with rain and tears, and smiled. Nodded. "Shut the window," she called back. "You'll catch cold."
Serena's round face clouded with concern. Her exotic, slanted eyes widened."Doesn't that horse have a house to live in?" she asked, scanning the pasture, which was empty except for a few gnarled apple trees, remnants of an orchard planted so long ago that only ghosts could recall it as it had once been, green-leaved and flourishing with fruit. An old claw-footed bathtub served as a water trough, and someone had dumped a bale of hay nearby. "Serena," Callie said, trying to sound stern and not fooling the child for a moment.
Serena closed the window, but she watched from behind the silvery sheen of steam and water droplets, troubled.
Callie turned back to Cherokee. Stroked his coarse forelock, trying to find it within herself to leave himagainhere in the cold gloom of an ordinary afternoon, and failing utterly.
But she had to do it.
She had to take Serena home. Start supper. Try to figure out how to pay all those bills, lying limp and soggy in the mailbox.
As if he understood her dilemma, Cherokee nudged her once more in the shoulder, then turned and plodded slowly away to stand, distant, hide steaming with moisture, under one of the lonely apple trees.
Callie ran the sleeve of her denim jacket across her face and oriented herself to Serena, her North Star. She retrieved the bills and the flyers from the mailbox, sniffling, and got behind the wheel of the Blazer, cranking up the heat.
"You're wet, Mom," Serena reiterated sagely, visibly relaxing now that Callie was back in the car.
Callie tried to smile, wanting to reassure the child, but fell short. She'd seen so much loss in her thirty-one yearsher parents, most of the homestead, Dennyand Cherokee. There were times when it was impossible to pretend it didn't matter, all that sorrow, even for Serena's sake.
Callie looked back once more, knowing she shouldn't, and saw her old friend watching her. She bit her lower lip, then shoved the Blazer into gear and made a wide turn in the mud of the road, headed for home.
The house was small, its shingles gray, its porch slanting a little to one side, like the mailbox she'd just left. The roof needed patching, and the yard was overgrown, but the windows glowed with warm welcome, because Callie had left the lights on when she drove to town to pick Serena up after school. It was an extravagance, burning electricity that way, but she was glad she'd done it.
Inside, she tossed the mail onto the antique table beside the front door and peeled off her wet jacket. Though considerably drier than Callie, Serena shook herself like a dog just climbing out of a lake, laughing.
She was such a happy child, in spite of so many things.
"Cocoa!" Serena crowed. "Let's have cocoa, with marshmallows!"
"Good idea," Callie agreed, bending to kiss the top of her daughter's head. Serena's hair was chestnut-brown, just like Denny's had been. She had his green eyes, too. "Just let me change."
She helped Serena out of her pink nylon coat, hung it on the peg next to the jean jacket.
Five minutes later, wearing slippers and a bathrobe, her blond, chin-length hair toweled into disarray comical enough to make her daughter point and laugh, Callie met Serena in the tiny kitchen at the back. Serena had already got the milk out of the refrigerator, taken the marshmallows from a pantry shelf and placed two mugs carefully on the table.
"Who does he belong to?" Serena asked.
Callie, busy measuring cocoa powder into a saucepan, stopped, turned to look at her only child, now sitting in her usual chair at the table, legs swinging.
"The horse," Serena clarified.
Callie's throat thickened painfully. "The Martins, I guess," she said. She didn't know her neighbors well; they were renters, according to the local grapevine, and not the sort to mix. When they'd moved in a few months ago, at the tail end of a long, ragged winter, Callie had made a chicken casserole, and she and Serena had gone over to welcome them, wending their way between U-Haul trucks to knock at the front door. No one had answered, and Serena, hoping for a playmate her own age, had been gravely disappointed.
"He's lonesome," Serena said sadly.
Callie's eyes burned. She was standing in a warm kitchen, with her daughter, the person she loved most in all the world, but her heart was still out there in the rain, under the dripping limbs of an apple tree. How had Cherokee come to belong to those people? What hard, winding, convoluted road had led him back, so close, but not-quite-home? He must have arrived recently, or she'd have seen him as she drove to town.
She couldn't speak, so she merely nodded, acknowledging Serena's remark, and went back to her cocoa-making. After the hot chocolate came supper, the beans-and-franks combo Serena loved, and "homework." Serena attended a special education program,with only six other children at the local elementary school. Two, including Serena, had Down syndrome; the others were mildly autistic. Callie was grateful for the program and the people who ran it, under-funded though it was. It gave Serena a place to go, something to be part of, in the larger world, and made it possible for Callie to earn a living.
Not that waiting tables at Happy Dan's Café was much of a living, but it kept the electricity on and the property taxes paid and food in the refrigerator, at least, and all the customers were long-time friends, people she had always known. She had to do a lot of juggling financially, but Callie didn't feel sorry for herself, and neither did anybody else who mattered.
Sure, the roof of the ranch house leaked and the old barn out back looked as though it might fall over at any moment. She had to shuffle the bills like a deck of cards and deal a sparse hand to be paid every month.
But she had Serena, and that made her rich.
She and Serena washed and dried and put away the dishes after supper. Then Serena did her homework, had her bath and put on her favorite flannel pajamas and crawled into bed with her teddy bear. Callie read her a story, listened to her prayers"please give the poor horse a house to live in"tucked her in and kissed her good-night.
All the while, she thought of Cherokee.
She didn't want to call Luke Banner, but it was all she could think of to do. He was the only veterinarian in the small eastern Washington town of Parable, and if anybody knew anything about the old horse that had turned up, as if by conjuring, in the Martins' pasture, it would be him.
He'd been as much a part of her childhood as Cherokee, Luke had. He'd been Denny's best friend, and hers, tooafter Denny, of course. One summer, between their junior and senior years of high school, when Denny was away working on an uncle's wheat farm, Callie and Luke had gone to a dance together, just the two of them, and kissed under a bright moon, and for a while after that, sick with guilt, Callie had believed she was in love with Luke.
Then Denny had come home, good-natured, trusting Denny. Things had returned to normalon the surface, at least. Deep down, though, something had changed, and Luke withdrew quietly from the circle of three. They graduated, and Luke went away to college. Denny took a part-time job at the sawmill in Parable and signed up for extension classes in computer science. Callie waited tables at Happy Dan's, taught herself to make jewelry and watched helplessly as her widowed father fell slowly away from her, like the outlying regions of the ranch that had been in his family for three generations.
After her dad's death, Callie and Denny were married, and the two of them had tried hard to turn the old house into the home it had never really been.
Denny had done well in his computer classes, and Callie had begun to sell some of her jewelry, a few pieces online but mostly over the counter at Happy Dan's, to tourists and a few generous locals, and they'd sat nights around the kitchen table, drawing up plans.
So many plans.
They'd replace the roof on the house and shore up the barn. Get Callie a horse to ride, because she'd never stopped missing Cherokee, have some kids.
The horse never materialized. Seven long years of hoping had passed before Callie got pregnant; she'd miscarried twice before Serena came along.
Sweet, angelic Serena.
Literally a gift from God.
But in Callie's experience, God gave with one hand and took away with the other. Serena had been barely three months old when Denny was killed in a car accident on his way home from a job interview.
There hadn't been much insurance...