Crawling out of their tent, Jake Crawford and Rollie Adler gasped when they saw the kaleidoscope sky of the Nevada high desert at dawn. The boys had set camp at dusk, both too exhausted to see past their noses.
The boys went to bed sore and with good reason. Before dimming the lantern, Jake had turned to Rollie, "Buddy, we sure earned our rest today."
Rollie yawned, "That was quite a chase, Jake."
They had done it. They had tracked and found Two Pennies. No one in Mesquite believed they could do it.
"You got a better chance of catching a cold than of catching that stallion!"
As they fell deeper asleep, they replayed the day's capture in their minds: The thunderclap of the horse's hooves caused the desert dust to explode. Behind them, sand swirled like the wake from a jet plane.
"Almost got him!"
Fifty yards ahead, running between their mounts, Two Pennies kicked up his own dust storm. So named for two copper-colored circles under each eye, Two Pennies had roamed the high desert for as long as anyone could remember. He was one of the last wild horses left. Rollie shot forward to the right of Two Pennies.
"C'mon, Jake, let her fly!" Rollie urged.
Jake raised his arm, twirling the lasso with confidence. He launched the rope with a well-practiced flick of his wrist.
It slid over Two Pennies neck. The boys slowed their horses to a full stop. After Two Pennies was securely tied to the twisted trunk of a Joshua tree, they set up camp just above him on a rocky outcrop. The horse stood proudly and defiantly below.
Neither young man had ever seen anything like the sight that greeted them this morning. They saw the morning sun light up the valley with streaks of pink and orange rays.
Jake smiled, "Rollie, my man, this might be the best sunrise ever."
"Don't get all sentimental!" Rollie teased.
Rollie and Jake stopped short when they heard the frightened snorting coming from Two Pennies straining mightily against his rope. There was fury mixed with a resigned sadness in his eyes – as if the horse knew his days of roaming this beautiful landscape were over. Rollie approached him and gently stroked his back.
"Let him go," Jake said quietly.
Jake's eyes locked with the wide-eyes of the roped stallion. In that moment, he understood that freedom was a natural right. He understood that to take it away would be a burden on his conscience that would haunt him forever. Rollie heard something in his friend's voice that he had never recognized before – a resolve that he knew would resist any challenge. He removed the lasso from around the horse's neck. The instant it slipped over his head, Two Pennies whinnied joyfully and bolted.
The two boys stood side by side and watched the horse gallop into the Nevada sunrise.
"You know," Rollie said. "Someone might come along tomorrow and catch him all over again."
Jake tipped his hat off his forehead, wiping sweat away on his sleeve. "I know."
"So what good did we do by letting him go?"
"We took something that didn't belong to us." Jake said. "And we put it back."
The two boys mounted their horses. As they rode back towards home at a comfortable trot, Jake thought that he had never before felt so alive.
Or so free.
Special thanks to Andrew Mitchell for his illustration. To see more of his work, visit ajmitchellart.com.
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