Little Powell veered away from the jump at the last second and unceremoniously dumped Sarah Jane Howard on the ground. Sarah Jane sprang to her feet in a white hot rage. This was the last straw. The past hour had been filled with mistakes, beginning with a clumsy dressage workout. The equitation session had been no better, as Sarah Jane struggled to match her form and rhythm to her stallion's uncharacteristically awkward and unpredictable gait. And now this. She had a major horse show coming up at the end of the month, one where she was the defending champion, no less, and at this rate she would be forced to withdraw. Sarah Jane stomped across the riding ring to her horse and skewered him with an implacable glare. Little Powell gazed back at her. Finally, Sarah Jane took a deep breath and placed a gentle hand on her horse. The stallion jerked with alarm and staggered sideways. A gnawing fear raced through Sarah Jane and settled in the pit of her stomach. She stood in front of Little Powell waving her hands back and forth across his field of vision and watched with growing panic as her horse failed to track the movements. Sarah Jane's hands shook and her breath came in shallow gasps as she pulled out her phone and hit the speed dial.
Equine veterinarian Dr. Adam Waller took one last look at Little Powell and turned to Sarah Jane.
"Well, the good news is that he's very physically fit and strong."
"And the bad news, Adam?" Sarah Jane asked.
" I'm sorry, Sarah Jane," Adam Waller replied. "Your horse's eye movements and reactions are very minimal, even when he looks directly into my penlight."
"He's blind," Sarah Jane said in a shaking voice.
Adam hesitated. "Probably," he agreed. He placed a comforting hand on Sarah Jane's shoulder and said, "I want you to do me a favor. Are you and Cowboy going to the state fair this weekend?"
Sarah Jane nodded. "He's doing a rodeo clinic there. I had planned to bring Little Powell and enter him in the mile and a quarter fairgrounds race just to test his speed and stamina. Emma's coming, too. She'll probably stick like glue to her daddy. She loves rodeo."
"I have a colleague, Dr. Jarrett Tanner, who is one of the top equine ophthalmologists in the country," Dr. Waller said. "She will be at the fair this weekend and I'd like for her to take a look at Little Powell."
"Do you think she can help?" Sarah Jane asked.
"All I can tell you is that I know there have been some recent advances in equine eye care," Dr. Waller replied. "If there's anything that can be done for Little Powell, Jarrett Tanner can do it."
Sarah Jane managed a weak smile and said, "Set it up."
John "Cowboy" Howard knew something was wrong as soon as he walked in the door. He had spent the day in the saddle riding the vast expanse of Wild Pony Ranch, mending fences and rounding up stray livestock. He found his wife at the kitchen table staring into space. Sarah Jane brought her husband up to speed on Little Powell's condition and the plan to have Dr. Tanner examine the stallion.
Six year old Emma Howard wandered into the kitchen and listened as her parents discussed what should be done about the horse.
"If he's blind he can't produce income, John," Sarah Jane said in a choked voice. "I'll have to put him down."
Emma stared at her mother in open-mouthed horror.
"What? No!" John Howard said in alarm. "Maybe Dr. Tanner can help. Even if he's blind I can use him to do some ranch work. Or we can put him out to stud. Or you can use him with your beginner students that you lead around the ring."
Sarah Jane shook her head sadly. "Little Powell doesn't have the training or the stamina to do ranch work, even if he could see. And I'm not going to put one of my students, even a beginner, on a blind horse."
"He's a champion, Sarah Jane," Cowboy said. "We could probably get at least seven hundred dollars for a stud fee."
Sarah Jane laughed in spite of herself. "I expect we could get closer to nothing for a blind stud. I doubt if he could even do the deed."
John Howard flashed a lascivious grin.
Sarah Jane reached over and punched him on the arm. "You're not a horse," she laughed.
"Mama, how does Little Powell produce income?" Emma asked.
"Lots of ways, honey," Sarah Jane replied. "People that come to Wild Pony Ranch for riding lessons, trail rides, and overnight camp outs pay to ride Little Powell. And when I enter him in horse shows sometimes we win prize money."
"Like daddy does in the rodeo?" Emma asked.
"I wish," Sarah Jane laughed. "Your daddy's one of the top rodeo cowboys in the country. He makes a lot more money than I do."
"But why does Little Powell have to die?" Emma whimpered. "Will I have to die if I can't produce income?"
"No, sweetie," John Howard said, pulling his daughter close. "We don't do that to people. Besides, you're going to be a big success when you grow up."
"But why does Little Powell have to die, daddy?" Emma repeated in a small voice.
"That's something you might understand better when you're older, sweetie," her father replied. "Why don't you run upstairs and I'll be up in a minute to tell you a story."
"You should have given her a straight answer, John," Sarah Jane said after Emma had left the room.
John Howard looked over at his wife and said, "Emma asked a good question, Sarah Jane. I wish I had an answer to give her."
The fair was packed. They finally found a space for the truck and horse trailer next to the race course.
John Howard reached in his pocket and handed his daughter a ten dollar bill. "You can pick out something you like with this sweetie."
"Thank you, daddy," Emma replied. "Can I pick it out by myself and get it even if mama says it's not appropriate?"
John Howard laughed and said, "Yes, Emma."
Sarah Jane looked at her husband and rolled her eyes.
"I'm going to get set up for my clinic this afternoon," John said. "I'll meet y'all back here in about an hour to watch the race."
Sarah Jane noticed that Emma seemed anxious and distracted as they visited the various exhibits. She asked her daughter if she would like some cotton candy and was perplexed when she declined.
They returned to the race course as the crowd was beginning to fill the stands.
"Your daddy should be here any minute and then we can find some good seats for the race," Sarah Jane said.
"Mama,I'm going to visit with Little Powell, okay?" Emma asked.
"All right, honey, but don't wander off. We'll come get you."
John Howard showed up five minutes later and said, "We need to find some seats. The riders will be coming out in a few minutes. Where's Emma?"
"Visiting with Little Powell," Sarah Jane said. "I'll get her."
John surveyed the track and turned around in time to see his wife sprinting toward him in a blind panic.
"She's gone, John!" Sarah Jane gasped. "Little Powell, too! My fault! Why did I let her out of my sight? John, what if she's been kidnapped?"
"I see her," John said. "She's on the course. I think she's planning to enter the race."
"Go get her!" Sarah Jane shrieked.
John Howard hurried over to the fence railing and beckoned to his daughter.
"What are you doing, Emma?" her father asked.
"We have to try, daddy. I told Little Powell that mama said he has to produce income or he might die. He's really scared, daddy, but he wants to try. The man said there's a prize if you finish first, second, or third."
"Emma, he's blind. How are you going to get him around the track?" her father asked.
"Little Powell said I could steer him like a car and tell him where to go," Emma said.
John Howard's thoughts drifted back to that spring day when Emma's little Pomeranian, Ranger, received a seemingly lethal rattlesnake bite and drifted into a deep coma. Emma had her hands on the little dog's heart throughout the night and insisted that he was coming out of the coma. Adam Waller had deemed the coma irreversible and was preparing to euthanize the dog just as Ranger opened his eyes. The incident had rocked the veterinarian. Emma was the only true animal empath that Adam Waller had ever met and he had never again doubted her remarkable connection to an animal's mind and heart.
John Howard looked up at his daughter and said, "Pace yourself. Start off slow and don't get boxed in. Don't take any chances. If it's not working, just pull up. Understand?"
"Yes, daddy," Emma said in a subdued voice as she started to move away.
"Emma," her father called.
Emma turned in her saddle.
"If you get to the last turn and you're close, turn him loose and let him fly."
Emma grinned and headed for the starting line.
"Where's Emma?" Sarah Jane asked anxiously.
"She's riding," John said. "I told her to be careful."
"Are you crazy?" Sarah Jane hissed. "A six year old girl riding a blind horse? They could both be killed."
"She rides as well as anyone in the field, Sarah Jane. And she talked with Little Powell about it. It'll be fine."
"Jesus, John, no wonder she's such a daddy's girl. You never say no."
"This is important, Sarah Jane," her husband replied. "Let it go."
They got to their seats just in time for the start. Emma trailed the field of fifteen horses into the first turn. John Howard's heart sank. As they headed down a straightaway, Emma began moving up. She was tenth heading into the second turn and seventh at the halfway mark. Her father watched with growing excitement. The two lead horses were well ahead of the rest of the field. The battle was for third place and its hundred dollar prize. Emma tucked in behind two horses that were running side by side. Fifth place.
"She's got a shot," John whispered, and he was out of his seat and sprinting for the railing at the final turn.
Emma headed into the final turn and saw her father out of the corner of her eye pinwheeling his arms like a third base coach waving a runner home.
Emma was on the heels of the horse in the middle lane. As they came out of the turn Emma moved to the outside lane, the Lane of Hope and Desperation, where dreams go to live or die.
Little Powell's nostrils flared as he sucked in oxygen. As they entered the home stretch the stallion peered down a dark tunnel to an invisible finish line and ran for his life.
The horses thundered down the final straightaway running three wide like a NASCAR race. One hundred yards to go. Little Powell surged and the inside horse dropped off the pace. Again, Little Powell surged, but the horse in the middle lane hung on and then inched slightly ahead. Fifty yards. Forty. Emma could feel her horse's stride breaking down as muscles yielded to exhaustion. Twenty yards. Emma knew that Little Powell was running on empty but she asked one last time. The tiny surge brought them even with the other horse as they flew across the finish line in a dead heat.
There was a short delay as the judges studied the photo finish before declaring a tie for third place. Emma and the other rider split the one hundred dollar prize.
John Howard raced up to his daughter and scooped her into his arms.
"Congratulations, sweetie!" he exclaimed. "What are you going to do with that new fifty dollar bill?"
Emma grinned and shrugged.
Sarah Jane forced a smile and said, "Congratulations, honey. I'm glad you're okay. You had us worried."
"See, mama," Emma said. "We won fifty dollars. Little Powell can still produce income."
Sarah Jane started to reply but was interrupted by a tall, striking woman who held out her hand.
"I'm Jarrett Tanner," the woman said.
"Thank you for coming," John Howard said after introductions were made.
Dr. Tanner smiled at Emma and said, "Congratulations, Emma. That was quite a race."
"Thank you," Emma replied. She patted her horse and said, "This is Little Powell. He's still pretty tired from the race."
The smile slid from Jarrett Tanner's face and was replaced with a look of disbelief.
"This is Little Powell?" she asked.
Emma nodded. "He says he can see light and shadows sometimes but I think it's his imagination. Mostly it's like he's looking down a long dark tunnel."
Dr. Tanner studied Emma a moment longer before recognition dawned.
"You have a little Pomeranian named Ranger, don't you?" she asked.
Jarrett turned to John and Sarah Jane and said, "Adam told me about Ranger. Your daughter is the only animal empath I've ever met."
Dr. Tanner took her time examining Little Powell. When she was finished she turned to Sarah Jane and said, "Yes, he's blind, but it's operable. There's a new breakthrough procedure for treating this type of blindness."
"Is it experimental?" Sarah Jane asked.
"No," Dr. Tanner replied. "It's new, but it's gone through trials and is fully approved. I've done two of these operations with one hundred percent vision restoration in both cases."
"I hate to sound crass," Sarah Jane began, "but we have to weigh the cost of the operation against Little Powell's future income producing potential."
Emma stared at her mother with a look of outright fear. John was left speechless. With a herculean effort Dr. Tanner maintained a neutral expression.
Emma reached into her Hello Kitty purse and retrieved her fifty dollar prize and the ten dollars that her father had given her.
"I'll pay for the operation, mama," Emma said frantically.
She held the money out to Dr. Tanner.
Dr. Tanner looked away and began rummaging in her medical bag.
Sarah Jane knelt down in front of her daughter and said, "Honey, this is something you'll understand when you're older. An operation like this is very expensive. It would cost ..."
"Fifty dollars," Jarrett Tanner said in a choked voice. "That's how much it costs."
She took the money from Emma's outstretched hand and handed her back the ten dollars from her father along with a receipt.
"You can bring him in this week," Dr. Tanner said as she walked away wiping furiously at her eyes.
The operation was a complete success. Sarah Jane was thrilled that she and Little Powell could continue competing in equestrian events.
Sarah Jane was looking out the window when Emma entered the kitchen and grabbed an apple. "Where are you going, honey?" Sarah Jane asked.
"I'm taking an apple to Little Powell," Emma said quietly.
Sarah Jane studied her daughter. Ever since the operation she had been acting very withdrawn, almost depressed. Sarah Jane had experienced difficulty engaging Emma in conversation and she rarely made eye contact.
"I know you're glad that Dr. Tanner saved Little Powell's eyesight," Sarah Jane said with forced cheerfulness.
For once, Emma looked directly at her mother and said, "I'm glad Dr. Tanner saved Little Powell's life."
Sarah Jane watched as Emma walked down to the barn. She saw her husband interrupt his work to pick his daughter up and sling her over his shoulder. Emma squealed with laughter. Sarah Jane felt an overwhelming sadness invade her mind and body. She knew she had lost something precious and she was pretty sure she would never get it back. She watched until her daughter and the laughter disappeared behind the barn door.