Read The Way Home Online

Authors: Becky Citra

The Way Home (4 page)

BOOK: The Way Home
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Chapter Nine

A strong wind blew into Lucky's face, keeping the smoke away. A bright full moon lit up the forest.

He had walked most of the day, resting occasionally in the shade under the tall pine trees. Sometimes he followed deer and bear trails and sometimes he made his own way. When he was hungry, he tore off long pieces of dry grass and slowly chewed them. He longed for fresh grass or the sweet hay that he was fed at the farm. But even more than that, he longed for water.

He passed by two small swamps that looked like grassy islands in the middle of the forest.
He investigated each one hopefully, stepping cautiously through bulrushes and reeds. His hooves made big holes in the soft, spongy ground, but the water had dried up weeks ago.

Just after midnight, Lucky came to an old fence made out of wooden rails. Many of the rails were broken. In places, the fence had collapsed into the ground. He stepped through one of these openings and kept going. A few minutes later, he stood at the edge of a field. On the other side, a silver roof glinted in the moonlight.

Lucky knew that he was near people again. And people meant water. He nickered and his hooves quickened as he made his way across the field. He stepped over another broken piece of fence and stopped at the edge of a weed-choked yard.

In the middle of the yard was a white trailer. On one end of the trailer sagged a wooden lean-
to with a piece of blue tarp for a roof. There were
no curtains at the trailer windows, which looked black and empty.

The yard was littered with pieces of old machinery and other junk – a rusty tractor, a car with broken windows, a washing machine, a fridge with a smashed door. Nettles grew right up through the middle of a pile of worn-out tires.

Lucky waited for a few minutes, his ears pricked. Nothing. A gust of wind tore at the edge of the blue tarp, which flapped and fluttered with a rattling sound. He jumped back, his muscles bunched, ready to run.

He sensed that this was a bad place to be, but his thirst drove him forward across the yard. He poked around the front of the trailer for a few minutes. A plastic bag containing tin cans, potato peelings, and a piece of rotten steak had been torn open. Its contents were strewn everywhere. He nosed the garbage, but found nothing of interest. He ventured around the back. More nettles grew here, and there was a small tumbledown shelter with two stalls.

One of the stall doors was open. He advanced cautiously, his nostrils searching for the scent of water. He stuck his head through the doorway.
It was too dark inside to see anything, but a musty smell of moldy hay greeted him.

No water.

He took a few steps farther and banged his hoof against a feed bucket. It tipped over with a clatter. Startled, he backed out of the shelter.

Clouds scudded across the sky, blocking out the moon. Lucky couldn't see anything now. He didn't like being by himself. He whinnied loudly, again and again, desperate for someone to come. But no window opened at the trailer. No one peered out the door to see what was causing the commotion. The only sound was the flapping blue tarp.

Lucky picked his way through a patch of tall weeds that grew beside the shelter. He had made up his mind to return to the forest.

Suddenly, something razor-sharp bit into his front legs.

Frightened, he tried to plunge forward, but something pulled him back. It was as if a hundred sharp teeth were hanging onto him, ripping his skin. He tried leaping sideways but the pain was worse, like nothing he had ever felt before. He kicked out, frantic to escape. Whatever this terrifying thing was, it tightened around his front legs, binding his feet together.

And then Lucky couldn't move at all.

Chapter Ten

Rain!

It woke Tory in the morning, rattling like pebbles at the window in Deanna's bedroom. She slipped out of her sleeping bag and hurried downstairs.

Cathy was sitting on a sofa in the living room, curled up in a blanket with a mug of cocoa.

“It's raining!” said Tory.

“I know,” said Cathy. “I've been up for hours, listening to it. I just had the radio on. We can go home today.”

Not
my
home, thought Tory. But she was too excited to worry about that. She took a deep breath. “Do you think Lucky will still be there?”

Cathy hesitated. “I think he'll be close by.
He probably never even left. After all, the fire never reached our valley.”

Tory held onto that thought all morning. Lucky was safe. He
had
to be. Breakfast took forever. Now that the danger had passed, no one was in a hurry to do anything. Tory worried that they would have to pack up all the boxes that had been stored in the Mathesons' garage and put them in the car and truck. It would take ages. To her great relief, Oliver and Cathy decided to come back for their belongings when it wasn't raining.

Finally Oliver and Deanna's dad ventured outside to load four of the horses into the horse trailer – Barnabas, Destiny, Orpheus, and a black horse called Jet. Oliver would get the others when he returned for the boxes. Tory watched through the rain-streaked window, whispering at them to hurry.

She thought Oliver and Cathy would never finish saying their thank-yous and good-byes, but at last they were on their way. This time, Julia and Tory rode in the car with Cathy. The windshield wipers swished back and forth. Julia, who had spent half the night whispering with Deanna in her double bed, leaned against the window and fell asleep.

How
could
she sleep? Didn't she care about Lucky? Tory sat bolt upright. Her stomach was in a knot as a hundred questions tumbled around in her head. Was Lucky hungry? He must have eaten all his hay by now. Did he have enough water? Oliver had left the bathtub in the corral full but how much did a pony drink? She hoped Lucky had gone into the shelter to get out of the rain.

Cathy had to make one stop in Springton, at the bank. The next stop was the general store near their farm, where she ran in to pick up the mail. Tory bounced on the seat impatiently. She thought she would burst by the time Cathy turned onto the farm road.

Oliver was there ahead of them. He had put on a rain slicker and was unloading the last horse from the trailer. Tory practically fell out of the car. “For heavens sake, Tory, wait until I've stopped!” snapped Cathy.

Tory ran to the corral fence. The shelter at the far end was empty. Some hay was scattered around and the bathtub still had water in it. But there was no sign of the white pony.

A tight feeling squeezed her chest. “Lucky!” she yelled. “
Lucky
!

“Come inside, Tory,” called Cathy. “You're going to get soaked.” She and Julia dashed through the rain to the house. Oliver walked over to the corral where Tory still stood, rain mixing with the tears on her cheeks. He frowned. “He won't be far. You'd better come in now. We'll look for him when the rain lets up.” He put his hand on her arm.

Tory wrenched herself away. Oliver didn't care.
Nobody
cared except her. She made up her mind fast. She scrambled over the fence, and ran across the corral and through the gate that Oliver had left open for Lucky. She could hear Oliver shouting something at her, but she kept running.

Down through the field she raced, the wet grass slapping at her jeans. Wind drove the stinging rain into her face. She crossed the creek bed at the bottom of the field, mud squelching up over her runners.

She stopped at the open gate in the middle of the wire fence. Her heart beating fast, she stared into the dripping forest. It was dark in there, almost as dark as night, and the trees swayed and groaned in the wind.

“Lucky!” she shouted. “Lucky!” The rain plastered her hair to her head. Her drenched sweatshirt clung to her back like clammy skin. But she didn't want to go back to the house.
She would
never
go back until she found Lucky.

Tory took a deep breath. She took a few hesitant steps forward, through the open gate, and she started to run.

Chapter Eleven

Lucky shivered. At first his thick white coat had shed the rain. Now, by the middle of the day, he was wet right down to his skin. He was stiff from standing in one place for so long. He was hungry. And he was terribly thirsty.

In the morning light he had seen what was trapping him – a coil of jagged barbed wire.
It had been left to rust in the tall weeds and it was now wrapped tightly around his front legs. There was no way he could work himself free.

So he just stood there.

Finally he heard something. He swiveled his ears toward the sound of a truck rattling over a gravel road. A few moments later, he heard a door slam at the front of the white trailer. And then nothing.

He cried out – a loud, shrill whinny, begging for help.

A man in a dark gray oilskin coat appeared at the side of the trailer. He stared in Lucky's direction.

Lucky whinnied again.

“Hey! Where did you come from?”

The man waded through the weeds and stood beside Lucky. He was tall and heavy, with a black beard and a sour smell. He stared at the pony with small bloodshot eyes. “You got yourself in a mess.”

Lucky trembled. He was afraid of the man's smell and his rough voice.

The man muttered, “I'll have to get my fencing
pliers.” He grinned suddenly, his mouth full of blackened teeth. “Don't go anywhere.”

He disappeared around the trailer, but he was back in a few minutes with a halter and a rope and a pair of pliers. He slid the halter over Lucky's head. “Ain't taking any chances on you getting away. You're a good-looking pony. Someone will be looking for you, and that might mean a reward.”

He bent down, puffing and grunting, and cut the wire away from Lucky's legs. When Lucky was free, his instinct told him to run, but the man held him tight with the rope.

“We'll just put you in here,” he said, leading Lucky to the old shelter. Lucky limped, the numbness in his legs turning quickly to pain. The man yanked roughly on the rope, jerking the pony's head.

When Lucky was safely in one of the stalls, the man took off the rope and halter. He kicked forward some of the moldy hay that was piled up in the corner. “You can eat this,” he growled. He shut the bottom half of the stall door, slid the latch across, and leaned on the door to study Lucky. “Just maybe my luck's changing,” he said. “I bet there'll be a nice fat reward for you. I ain't going to give you back for nothing, that's for sure.”

Lucky backed into a corner of the stall.

“After all,” said the man, “if I hadn't come back when I did, you'd have died. You could say
I saved your life.”

The man left Lucky and walked back to the trailer. He planned to go to the store in the morning and ask around to see if anyone was missing a pony. But he wouldn't admit that he had the pony. Not yet. He'd give the owner time to get a whole lot more worried.

It had been a few years since the man had looked after animals – a pair of goats, some pigs, and a thin, half-starved dog. He didn't know that Lucky was desperate for water. He didn't know that the wounds from the barbed wire would become horribly infected if they weren't looked after.

He also didn't know that Lucky was a master at opening stall doors.

Chapter Twelve

Tory ran along the rough road into the forest, stumbling over the ruts and bumps. After a few minutes she slowed to a walk, sucking in gulps of air, trying to stop shivering. Rain slithered down her neck and her runners were soaking wet.

“Lucky!” she screamed. “Lucky!”

She peered into the dark trees, afraid of what the forest might hold.
Don't think about bears and cougars
, she told herself.
Don't
.

It was hard to keep going. But Lucky was out there somewhere and he needed her. She was certain of that.

A faint roar behind her made her spin around. The roar grew louder, and Oliver appeared around a bend in the track, hunched over the seat of the ATV, squinting from under the hood of a flapping rain slicker. Tory felt weak with relief at not being alone. But she was afraid that Oliver would be angry.

He wasn't. He had a rain slicker for her, which she slithered into, and he told her to climb up behind him. She had ridden only once before on the ATV. She had loved it. But this time she was too worried about Lucky to enjoy herself.

Oliver shouted so Tory could hear him over the roar of the engine. “The rain's probably washed away Lucky's tracks, but keep your eyes peeled just in case.” He drove slowly along the rough road. When he got to the woodcutting clearing, he stopped and turned off the ATV's motor. Tory hopped off.

“That's as far as we can go on this thing,” he said. “We'll walk for a bit, see if we can spot anything.”

The rain had eased to a drizzle but the trees were still dripping. When Tory brushed against branches, water drops sprinkled her face.

She followed Oliver along a narrow deer trail. Once, he stopped and said, “These branches here that are broken? That could be from Lucky.” Then he stopped walking and frowned. He was staring at something on the ground.

“What is it?” said Tory, her heart beating fast.

“Scat.”
Scat
was the fancy word for
poop
, Tory knew.

“Wolf scat. Lots of it. There must have been more than one wolf come this way. Three or four maybe.”

Wolves! Her stomach lurched.

“The scat could have been here for a week or even longer,” he added quickly. “It's impossible to tell with all the rain.”

They walked for another twenty minutes, to the edge of a steep gully. Oliver turned to Tory. “There's not much point going any farther. We'll never find Lucky out here. He's probably made his way to a farm somewhere. You'll see, he'll turn up snug and warm in someone's barn.”

All the way back, Tory told herself over
and over again that Oliver was right. Lucky was safe.

But prickles ran up and down her spine. Wolves!

The man was finishing his sixth can of beer when he thought about water for Lucky.

“Don't want that pony dying on me,” he mumbled. “Not with all that reward money
I could get.”

He heaved himself off the couch with a grunt
and took a pail out to the pump in the yard.
He filled it with brownish water and carried it to the shelter.

“Hey!” he cried. “How did that happen?”

The stall door was open and the pony was gone.

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