Here’s the first short story I am uploading. Please feel free to read, share and give feedback. Also – I hope you enjoy.
By Goody Niosi
On his fifteenth birthday, Sam decided it was time to chase his dream. If not now, when? Maybe he was a bit old to still be infatuated with horses; the other boys in his class hid copies of Hustler and Gent in their backpacks. He saved his meagre allowance to spend on Young Rider or Equus. He’d read every copy of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, even the prequel, The Young Black Stallion.
Every fall, during the two-week span of the Canadian National Exhibition on Toronto’s lakefront, Sam took the streetcar to the Spadina gates and walked determinedly to the horse barn and rings. He would arrive when the ticket booths opened and leave at midnight – closing time. If he could afford it, he would go twice. Mostly, he didn’t have the money. He walked up and down the line of stalls, touching silky noses that poked out at him from the bars. He watched horses being shoed, brushed and washed. He watched manes being braided. He studied the tack, memorizing every piece: saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits, harnesses, martingales, and breastplates. He spent hours sitting in the stands at the practice ring, watching riders perform dressage. But mostly, he just leaned into the stalls as far as he could, gazing into big brown eyes and falling in love.
He imagined himself as a North American Alec, heading west where wild horses still roamed – although he had no idea if they still did – and finding his own Black. The Black might be a young horse or he could be the leader of a herd: magnificent and free. Sam saw himself standing on a wind-swept hill, gazing out toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the herd thundering toward him in the grassy valley below. And suddenly The Black would stop, lift his head to the wind and see him. The boy and horse would freeze and see each other in mutual recognition. The Black would leave his herd and walk toward him, head down in greeting – and Sam would reach out his hand to stroke the silky neck, caress the muzzle.
The Black would bend one leg and Sam would swing himself up on his broad back – one, long, graceful movement – and they would be off, sailing across the grasslands toward the mountains, outracing the wind.
The dream hadn’t changed in seven years. It had only intensified. Every time he was moved to a new foster home, he lost himself more deeply in the dream. When he’d read all twenty Black Stallion books, he started over again, savouring them. If one was missing from the library, he lived in agony until it was returned.
He changed schools so often that he had no time to make friends. He also rarely got bullied. He was small and quiet and kept to himself. He was an average student and would likely have done better if he’d paid attention rather than staring out the window wondering, if he squinted his eyes down to slits and gazed long and hard enough, would he be able to see beyond the houses, grey factories and stunted trees to open land? Rolling grasslands?
When he was thirteen he began to lay plans for his escape. He would hitchhike. That would be the easiest way. Just get out on the highway and stick out his thumb. Maybe a trucker would pick him up – a long distance trucker who was going all the way. He’d sleep in the cab of the truck, entertain the driver with his old harmonica – the only thing he had left from his dad.
And then, eighteen months later, he was moved again – another family that already had three other foster kids. He shared a room with a boy close to his age. The boy didn’t talk much and didn’t spend much time at home. That was fine with Sam. He lay on the top bunk bed reading his Stallion books.
The route to and from Parkdale Collegiate crossed an overpass. He would stand there on the way home and look straight down at the freight trains heading west – lines of flatcars and boxcars, even longer lines of containers. It came to him when he watched the trains; they ran slow here because they hadn’t left the city yet – and always there were open doors on the boxcars – and there was space inside. Always.
His first thought was to jump off the bridge, land on top of the boxcar, and swing himself inside like a Ninja. But when he judged the distance to the top of the car below him, he knew he was likely to die in the attempt. And though he had a fleeting thought that dying would be better than life, he knew that he had to keep living – for the dream.
And so he developed another plan: sneak down the embankment and just jump in. His strategy didn’t go much beyond getting on the boxcar. He started collecting bits of food from the house. Not so much that anyone would notice. He would take an extra cookie or a cracker or two. He would tuck a can of tuna under his mattress. He took the extra bits of food to school and hid them in his locker. He collected matches. He wracked his brain. What else did he need? He couldn’t get past matches – to keep him warm. Maybe a knife. And then he’d just wear a lot of warm clothes.
His birthday was September 15. No one said Happy Birthday to him because they either didn’t know or had forgotten. He stuffed his backpack as full as he could and wore his warmest clothes. He went to school and sat through classes, his foot tap-tapping under the desk. There was no going back. He had crossed a personal Rubicon. This was it.
It took forever for the bell to ring – end of his last class. Sam walked to his locker and dawdled, pretended he’d forgotten his combination, waited for the guys around him to leave. He opened the metal door and put his food stash into his backpack. It wasn’t big: a can of soup, a couple of tins of tuna, a muffin from yesterday –he’d have that for supper – and crackers, a small box of corn flakes, Dad’s chocolate chip cookies. He heaved the pack on his back, walked out the doors of the high school for the last time, and headed west on Queen Street.
He scooted down the embankment beside the bridge and sat, waiting. It didn’t take long – he’d been watching for weeks. Today was the day. The train came. He jumped on an empty boxcar, holding his breath, not knowing what he’d find inside. Explosives? A wild bull? A police officer? Nothing. It was empty.
Sam’s heart was pounding so loudly he could hear the pulse of blood in his ears. It had been too easy. He worried that the train wouldn’t go far – maybe only to Oakville – or even worse – Windsor and then south of the border. He needed the train to rumble up to Sudbury and then along the side of Lake Superior. It had to go north before heading west.
He sat in a dark corner of the boxcar, slowing down his breathing, hungry but too nervous to eat, listening to the clackety-clack of the wheels on the tracks.
Sam slept. When he woke it was dark; the wheels kept to their lullaby – clackety-clack. He ate his muffin and curled up against the cold.
When he woke, light was pouring into the boxcar. It was stopped. Where? Was he in danger? He crawled cautiously to the edge of the door and peered out: more tracks – lots of them – freight cars, flatcars, container cars, smoke rising from chimneys. He crawled back to his corner and ate a couple of cookies. The train started again and the day passed. Another day and another night and another day. No one came to his boxcar. It was as if it had been specially designated as his transportation to the foothills of Alberta.
Sam lost track of the days. He ran out of food except for the tuna and soup. He stabbed the tuna cans with his small knife until he had slits wide enough that he could dig for the fish.
Once or twice a day he peered out the door, looking for grasslands and foothills. The grasslands came – the great prairie – and for days there was prairie.
One hungry morning, Sam checked and thought he saw something more than just a small hill on the horizon. His heart started to beat hard. Was it possible? Could he actually have made it all this way? Didn’t stuff like this just happen in books and not in real life?
He crawled back into his corner and waited. When the light changed and he knew it must be afternoon, he edged toward the door again and looked. There was no mistaking it – foothills – and beyond them, mountains. Sam studied the ground by the train: the tall grasses looked soft enough. Should he jump and roll? Should he wait for the train to slow down or stop? His heart was doing that loud thump-thump again. He strapped on his backpack and hunkered by the door. Wait? Not wait? When? Now?
He waited. Was he waiting too long? If he jumped, would he break a leg? If he did, he would die out here alone.
The light had changed again when the train slowed, wheels grinding and screeching. Slower and slower. Sam jumped and rolled, picked himself up and watched the rest of the long line of cars pass by. Far ahead was the beginning of a town or city. He was safe. His plan had worked. And no one could have been more surprised than Sam.
In the west, mountains were blue-black silhouettes against a red sun. Shadows were so long they were blending together, growing into darkness. Sam walked, his legs wobbly after so many days and nights of sitting and curling up on the floor of the boxcar. He felt dirty and stinky and tired. He wanted a hot shower and something to eat but more than anything, he wanted to sleep. He wobbled across the grass, shaking out his arms and legs. The ground wouldn’t hold still – moving to the rhythm of the clackety-clack of the railway track.
Before the last light left the sky, Sam spotted a barn and almost hidden behind it, a sprawling house with a light in the window. He walked to the barn, found the door open and crept inside – a hay barn stuffed with hundreds and maybe thousands of bales. He climbed up the ladder to the loft, sprawled down on the prickly hay, balled up a shirt under his head and slept.
In the morning he elbowed and kneed his way to the loft window that looked down on the house and yard. It was a friendly-looking house with a big covered porch, a couple of rocking chairs on it, a tractor in the yard, and a blue pickup truck around the side. The door opened; a dog emerged: black and white, tail waving in eagerness; a man followed, pulling an old slouch hat over his almost-bald head. He wore a checked shirt, jeans, a quilted vest and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots!
“Shep!” he called. The dog ran to him. He opened the passenger door of the truck. Shep jumped in. The man stepped into the driver’s side, turned over the engine, backed up a few feet, turned the wheel and headed down the driveway, dual plumes of dust following him.
Sam watched. Who else lived there? When his stomach demanded that he move, he climbed back down the ladder and approached the house. He recalled the door slamming shut but hadn’t seen a key being turned in the lock.
He stood on the porch. Out of habit he knocked. Held his breath. No sound from inside. He listened again. Hadn’t he heard something just now? Yes – a soft footstep. He turned. A black and white cat, tail held high, padding toward him from the barn. Sam sighed. Okay, he turned the handle; the door opened smoothly into a kitchen. Dishes were drying on a rack; a red striped towel hung from the oven door handle. A big, pockmarked and scratched pine table occupied all the floor space in the centre of the room. Sam eyed the white fridge and the row of cupboards.
Fridge first: eggs and butter, milk, a loaf of white bread, mayo, mustard, a jar of olives, some glass containers with what looked like leftover vegetables, There were apples and bananas on the counter. Sam didn’t want to cook – didn’t want to leave a trace. But he rifled through the cupboards and found peanut butter, jam, jelly, sugar, honey, tins of tuna and salmon. He made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He ate two apples and three bananas.
He walked through the house. It was old-fashioned, like people had been living there since the nineteen-fifties and had never bothered to update the furniture: ratty couches, a comfortable but worn easy chair, a few end tables, a big coffee table and a flat-screen TV – a token nod to modernization. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a bathroom. Sam stripped and stepped into the shower. He soaped himself, poured shampoo on his head, smiling with pleasure.
He didn’t like stepping back into dirty clothes but he couldn’t stay long enough to do laundry.
When he came back downstairs, he heard another noise: a sound that made his hair stand up.
It sounded like a hoofbeat. And then a snort. Then a whinny. And another one pitched differently – higher. Was it his imagination? He tore out the door and looked in the direction of the sounds. He walked toward them: a section of yard fenced into what he guessed were corrals or paddocks – three of them with a horse in each one. Three horses! There was a dapple grey with a small head and delicate chin that made Sam think it might be an Arabian or have some Arabian ancestry. Another was a deep, dark brown with a long mane. The third was pure, spun gold with a white mane. It might have been the most beautiful horse Sam had ever seen, even more arresting than any at the fair.
The golden horse was galloping laps around his confines, tossing back his head, his silver mane rippling, dust spewing up around his ebony hooves.
Sam walked to the corral in a trance, stepped up on the bottom rung of the split-rail fence, and leaned his body over the top rail. Suspended by his arms, he rested his chin on his hands and watched the great beast gallop a few more circles and stop. He tossed his head, eyed Sam carefully and walked close. He sniffed him the way horses do, noisily blowing air through his nostrils, tickling Sam’s face.
Sam laughed out loud, closing his eyes, feeling the horse’s breath, smelling that distinct horse smell. There was nothing like it. It couldn’t be described. But any horse person on earth would know what he meant if he said, “horse smell.” It was like leather and warmth and heat and old grass and hay and pure animal joy.
Sam put his head down, felt the breath in his hair and then lips nibbling very gently on one ear. Sam lost his heart right there – lost it so completely that he didn’t hear the truck, nor the footsteps coming up behind him.
“And who may you be?” The voice was gruff but not unkind.
Startled out of a world where the horse and he were the only beings alive, Sam lost his grip on the top bar and tumbled to the ground at the man’s feet. He jumped up quickly, dusted off his pants. “I’m Sam,” he said.
“And where are you from? How did you get here?”
Sam’s eyes grew wide. He’d been prepared for almost anything: cold, hunger, miles of walking – but not for answering questions. He hadn’t made up a story and if he had, he doubted it would have done him any good. He was a notoriously bad liar; his first and only act of subterfuge had been hiding food in his locker and hopping on the train.
“Well?” the man was pretty big. He could probably pick Sam up with one hand. His dog was sitting beside him looking friendlier – tail waving, mouth open in a big, panting grin.
“I’m from out east,” Sam said, adding “Sir,” as an afterthought.
“How’d you get here? There’s only one dirt road and I just came along that. So you didn’t walk or drive up here.”
“I walked across the field,” Sam said.
“No sir, last night.”
“Coming from where? From town?”
Sam hung his head, willing himself not to cry, certain the man was about to call the police. “Yes sir – sort of.”
They stood in silence for a while.
“Golden seems to have taken a shine to you.”
Golden! Sam’s heart did a small jig. His name was Golden! “He’s a beautiful horse sir.”
“You can stop calling me sir – name’s Jack.”
“Yes, Jack – sir.”
Jack sighed, walked toward the horse. It shied away, rolled its eyes.
“Go on,” Jack said. “Call the horse.”
Sam turned back to the horse and held out his hand, shaking slightly. “Golden,” Sam whispered. The horse walked forward, placed his muzzle in the boy’s outstretched hand, snorted softly.
“I’ll be damned,” Jack said. “Haven’t been able to get near him for a week. Bought him from auction seven days ago. Closest I’ve come is throwing food at him. You better come in the house.”
Sam followed Jack, who glanced around, taking in the crumbs on the counter, the backpack on the kitchen table. “How old are you, Sam?”
“Where’d you run away from?”
Sam tried to hold the tears in check, cleared his throat and coughed. But when he opened his mouth, he found himself choking.
“Sit down, Sam.” Jack said. “I’m going to make a pot of tea. You just talk when you feel comfortable.”
Sam waited, cleared his throat again and wrapped his hands around the cup of steaming tea. It took a while to tell his story but Jack didn’t hurry him up – didn’t even interrupt once. Sam told him about his parents dying in the car crash, about how poor they’d been and about the distant aunt and uncle who’d taken him in but just for a while – just until they found out there’d be no insurance money. He told Jack about the foster homes. He’d never been beaten or starved – just treated with general disinterest. Mostly he told Jack about the horses – The Black and the stables at the Exhibition. He blushed red when he told him about his plan to come west and find a herd of wild horses. He told Jack about the boxcar and jumping out when he got to the foothills.
“Who’s gonna come lookin’ for you?” Jack asked.
Sam shrugged. “No one, I think.”
Jack nodded. “So when you find this wild herd of horses, what do you plan on doing?”
“Not sure,” Sam said.
“No plan, huh?”
“No sir, Jack.”
Jack sighed hugely. “Let’s go out on the porch,” he said.
Sam followed him and took the rocking chair beside Jack’s. From there, they could watch the horses, two of them chomping on hay, Golden standing at the rail fence, his eyes on the covered porch. Shep sat down beside Sam, leaned into him.
“The animals seem to like you,” Jack said.
Sam’s face lit up. “They’re wonderful!,” he said. “And Shep, he’s a beautiful dog!”
“Golden seems to have taken a shine to you.”
“He’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.”
Jack nodded. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he said. “I don’t know who’s gonna come lookin’ for you. You’re only fifteen. My wife died three years ago – no kids. I’m alone here. It’s not a big place – just a few head of cattle and the horses – the barn cat, Shep here. I kind of ramble around the place. There’s plenty of room. But I don’t know about the legalities of this. I keep to myself mostly. There’s plenty of room and you probably know that. Your clothes are filthy but your skin looks pretty scrubbed clean so I suspect you’ve visited the bathroom.”
Sam ducked his head, reddened.
“That’s okay,” Jack said. “Would’ve done the same thing. Pretty gutsy what you did – and lucky. No idea how you got all the way here undetected. Amazing really! But here you are. You can stay but you have to make your way: feed the animals here and learn about horses – how to ride and how to clean tack and look after them. Gotta help with hayin’ and cleaning up after yourself. You’re not gonna do it all. I’m a worker – you just gotta pitch in. And Golden – well, I think that one’s up to you. You can be in charge of him. God knows, he won’t let anyone else near him.”
Sam’s face took on a shine that was foreign to it. His heart did a flip it had never done before. “Yes sir,” he said. “I’ll do anything sir.”
“Then start by calling me Jack.”
“Yes, sir – Jack.”
“So you’ll stay.”
“I’ll stay. Thank you.”
“But don’t get ahead of yourself,” Jack said. “No guarantees or promises. I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t know if they’re gonna look for you. I don’t know if they’ll believe that you’re my nephew from back east. There’s no telling. They might take you away tomorrow. I could get into trouble and I don’t need that. You understand?”
“It’s along shot – you understand?”
“It probably won’t work out, right?”
Sam smiled, “Right.”
“Things go all to hell in this world all the time.”
“So don’t get your hopes up.”
Sam smiled bigger. “No sir.”
“My name’s not sir.”
“No sir. Uh – Jack.”
Jack sighed again, stood up. “Okay, first, let’s get your clothes into the laundry. You can wear some of mine for now – roll up the pant legs and shirtsleeves. Pick whichever spare room you want. We’ll fix it up. There’s a reading room downstairs – lots of books – books about horses. Not your fanciful Black Stallion books, mind you – real books about breeding and riding and so on. We’ll have to get you a proper pair of boots.
Jack smiled the smallest of smiles. “Yeah – cowboy boots.”
“But before we go in,” Jack said. “I think you’d better go see Golden again. He looks like he’s ready to bust through the fence to get at you. Go on.”
Sam leapt up and jogged to the fence, reached up his hand, felt the horse’s muzzle and his soft warm breath on his skin. Horse and boy breathing great, deep sighs of relief.