Skinning her elbow, Andi bumped and bruised her way down the hillside at top speed. Soundly knocking her head against a rock, she saw stars before joining her friends at the bottom.
Cory paused to look back at the spreading blaze. “Fire burns up when it can. It’ll consume the hill before starting across the flat ground.”
Jack nodded. “We should make a run for the creek while we have a head start. We may not make it as it is. Come on.” He and Cory took off sprinting for the blue line across the valley, motioning for the girls to follow.
Andi yelled after them angrily, “What about the horses? They’re tied to a tree. We can’t let them burn alive!” She imagined Taffy enveloped in thick smoke, rearing and lunging against the anchored reins.
“The horses are the opposite direction from the creek,” Rosa whimpered, tugging at her friend’s arm. “We won’t have a chance if we go back for them.”
Andi flinched at the true statement. We can’t risk our necks for any horses, even Taffy, she realized.
“All right. Let’s go,” she agreed, pointing at the giant black cloud forming overhead. The two shot after the boys, legs pumping like never before.
Pounding across the parched valley with her friends, Andi dared not look back. The fear of the approaching flames kept her moving forward.
Her braids hit against her back in a monotonous rhythm and sweat rolled down into her eyes. Stumbling every few yards, she gulped air and tried to pick up her dragging feet. It was no use. Her boots seemed as heavy as lead.
Exhausted, she caught her toe on a rock and fell forwards. Andi tried to catch herself, but her elbows buckled and her face hit the hard ground. Her forehead began to throb where it had met the rock earlier. With a groan, she pushed with all her might against the prickly dry grass. She had no strength left; she could not move her limp body.
“Wait, help!” Andi frantically yelled after her friends.
Already far ahead, she saw them like tiny shadows, getting smaller by the second. Her voice the wind snatched from her mouth and prevented her friends from hearing.
She mutely stared after them as her sight became blurred; the pounding in her head only grew stronger. Too exhausted for tears, she chocked back a sob as the valley began to spin before her.
Faintly, she became aware of four other distant shadows heading for the creek. In her partial consciousness, it dawned upon her that they must be the horses, broken loose from the tree.
Seeing her beloved horse escape to freedom, she felt the last of her energy surge through her. For a moment her mind cleared and, pushing herself into an upright position, she gasped in a huge gulp of air. With all her breath, she parted her lips and whistled.
The pitch resounded through the valley and seemed to echo all around. Every muscle frozen, Andi waited. Time seemed a dream. For one terrible second, she doubted her horse. Then, relief like rain poured over her as Taffy, but a speck in the distance, skidded to a halt mid-gallop.
Tossing her head wildly, Taffy seemed unsure of what to do. Andi swallowed and prayed her horse would not shy away. The mare was always willing to come at Andi’s whistle, but no horse in its right mind would run straight towards a fire. For once Andi half wished Taffy was not in her right mind.
As her vision once again clouded, Andi whispered to herself encouragement meant for her horse.
“Come on, Taffy. You can do it. Please don’t just leave me here.”
Andi could feel the approaching flames’ heat on her back. There wasn’t much time. If Taffy would just come close enough for her to mount…
Glancing back at her horse, the last thing Andi saw was Taffy rear and plunge away towards the creek as if chased by invisible wolves.
“No, Taffy!” Andi screamed.
Please, God, don’t let me die like this, she prayed as a wave of black swept over her mind.