So it surprised no one when, having been asked by her parents what she wanted as a present for her seventh birthday, and having been informed a moment later that that particular choice wasn’t something she needed, Margaret Kindy turned to her best friend for assistance.
“What I want,” she told Gus, “is a horse.”
“A horse?” He looked up from the stick he was whittling on. “What you need a horse for?”
She leaned closer, and though they were alone on the porch, whispered, “I don’t really need one. I know that.”
“You just want one.”
“More than anything. I’d love it and take care of it, Augustus, I promise I would.”
“It ain’t my decision to make, Little Bit. Your folks already told you—”
“They don’t understand me,” she said, her face solemn.
Gus couldn’t help smiling. She was right, of course. They didn’t understand her. But he couldn’t go against the wishes of her parents. Horses were not only expensive, they were useless around the farm except for plowing, and modern equipment did that now. Besides, plowing wasn’t what Margaret Kindy had in mind, and he knew it. What she had in mind was riding blissfully through the countryside with the wind in her hair and a song in her heart.
Even so, he started checking around.
The solution came a month later, when one of Gus’ cousins over in Baker’s Hollow lost a mare while giving birth. The new colt, a sickly thing, would soon have to be destroyed, Gus’ cousin told him. The family was too poor and too busy to care for it properly. Gus bought the colt on the spot, hauled him back to the farm wrapped in blankets in the back of his old red pickup, and with Edward’s reluctant but amused permission Gus presented the warm little bundle to Margaret. The two of them fed the colt with a bottle and smothered him with affection for the next few weeks, and eventually nursed him back to health.
The girl and the colt became inseparable. She named him Hero, and with the passage of time–and Gus’ guidance–she learned to ride him like an expert. Together they explored the farthest reaches of the farm. Sometimes they went alone, after school, just Margaret and her colt, but usually the old foreman went with them, bumping along nearby in his red truck as they galloped through the fields and pastures. Their team was as happy as ever; it had just added a third member.
ONE HOT, WINDY SATURDAY
On the way back, Margaret spotted Hero standing in a distant corner of his pasture, a mile or so from the farmhouse. She begged Gus to stop the truck and let her out. And when she asked him that, it suddenly didn’t matter to him that Edward had told them to go straight home, or that it looked like bad weather, or that Edward’s old cattle truck sometimes had trouble starting again. Gus just grinned at her, put his foot on the brake, and ground to a stop. A moment later, sitting on the tailgate and watching her frolic in the knee-high grass with her young horse, Gus Newberry felt as satisfied and content as any man could be.
The storm, when it came, gave little warning. The air turned thick and heavy, the sky went greenish gray, and a strange-looking cloud appeared above the treeline at the southwest edge of the pasture–a black, roiling, roaring cloud that reached all the way to the ground and 50 yards on either side. The colt pulled away and bolted, and for a moment Margaret stood there, stunned, in the middle of the field, staring at the oncoming tornado. Though Gus’ frantic shouts were lost in the noise of the storm, something made the girl turn and see him, and when she did her frozen muscles unlocked and she sprinted toward him, away from the cloud. As soon as she reached the fence he scooped her up and ran for the truck. The key was already in the ignition. Quick as a wink Gus stomped the clutch, grabbed the wheel, turned the key–and nothing happened.
He tried again and again as the wind screamed around them and Margaret screamed in his ear and the funnel grew bigger and bigger in his rearview mirror. Finally he threw open his door, pulled Margaret out with him, and started running with her down the dirt road toward the farm. As they fled, both of them shouting now, he knew in his heart they wouldn’t make it. He was going to die here on this country road, with this precious little girl, because of a weak battery and a mind too old and foolish to follow instructions…
And then he heard the horse.
Behind them, just ahead of the twister, Margaret’s pony had jumped the pasture fence and was pounding toward them, ears back, running flat out. Gus glanced at Margaret, and she seemed to read his mind. In a flash she scrambled onto his back and locked her fingers in the straps of his overalls, and as Hero shot past them Gus grabbed his mane and swung aboard. He could hear the noise behind them, closing in on them, sounds he would never forget–the howling of the wind, the machine gun rattle of snapping fence posts and pine trees, the ripping of metal as the two-ton cattle truck was swept up like a toy and torn to pieces in the roaring funnel–and then gradually the noise fell farther and farther behind them, the only sound the rhythmic drumming of hooves underneath him, the three of them away and clear and safe now, thundering down the road and around the long curve that ran south toward the house.