I've heard this story a million times.

"Most amazing thing I've ever seen. The stallion was as fast as a bolt of lightning. Not a drop of slow blood in him, I don't think. I watched him sprint through those canyons like water rushing down a river, passing Sergeant Pete with ease. And he liked to play games, too. One of the rustlers who brought him in said that he would hide behind them for a moment, only to come up from behind and bolt past them, if only to show them how fast he was."

The stories were getting old. Jim had heard them since he was little, and every family reunion was the same. Nothing beat Grandpa's stories. No, not even Uncle Gordon's story about the day he saved the entire town of Denver from a fire by drenching old Miss Houston's blouse with a brandy. Not even Aunt Sally's tale of her husband, who used to ride bulls in rodeos and one day had his head nearly cleaved by a horn. Heck, not even Jim's story about the day his thoroughbred mare, Swish, had bucked him off and dragged him for nearly three miles through muddy terrain.

Everybody always had their share of stories. Some had new stories to tell, some had none, and some had old ones to relive. The only person who continually told the same one was old Gramps. The tale of the wild mustang who had respectfully escaped the cavalry fort and made him look like a fool. The tale of the mustang who was so powerful that he could throw off any man who dared get on his back. And it always got better. The mustang managed to pick up an Indian boy, sabotage the raid on the Lakota village, survive going down a waterfall, and leap at least twenty feet to maintain his freedom. Next, the mustang would be shooting lightning from his eyes and melting people with his breath.

As for the tale, it sounded ridiculous, but nobody dared tell Grandpa it was untrue. His heart and soul clung to that tale, and always after reliving it, he'd clutch his chest and say, "How I long to see that mustang again. See him running across the plain in a full sprint. If I saw it again, I'd be complete."

Jim would always roll his eyes. Swish was fast enough for him. He named her for the pure speed in which she was born with. When she ran past, her tail would swish in his face, and the wind would swish by moments later. She was like a portable wind tunnel.

After the reunion was calming down, and all the family members had time to see each other (and get into plenty of arguments), Jim went down to the stable. He had promised Swish he'd take her for a run. She was always angry the next morning if he hadn't taken her for a run.

The plains were always fun. The grass beneath her hooves, the wind rushing as Swish carried him endlessly-it was pure joy. Pure exhilaration. Today would be no less.

As soon as she saw him, she neighed. Jim smiled. "You ready to run?"

Swish snorted, almost like saying, Of course I am. Hurry up.

Jim put on her blanket, saddle, and bridle, then led her outside. She impatiently stood, stamping her hooves, as he tightened the cinch.

She looked back at him, and he looked at her. Her mane and tail were a bold black, her eyes a deep, deep green, perfectly matching her brown fur. Jim extended a closed fist, and she nuzzled it, smelling something hidden inside. Jim laughed as she nipped at his knuckles, eager for him to give up the treat.

He opened his palm to reveal the alfalfa. Hastily she chomped it down, but was extremely careful not to bite his hand. As she finished the treat, Jim walked around to her left side and put his left foot in the stirrup. Immediately Swish took a step, but stopped the instant Jim said, "Hup!"

She was impatient. Too impatient, but Jim knew it was only because she was so eager to run. As was he. The instant he was up on her back, he didn't take the time to warm her up. He kicked her in the sides and she bolted forward.

They passed the little grove of trees behind the homestead, as well as the creek beyond it. Swish loved to splash her way through it, whinnying in pleasure the entire time.

Jim was young, in his late teens. School was rigorous, and he was pleased to be out of it now. His father was a rancher, and it seemed he would be following the same career path. Which was unfortunate, since he always wanted to be a cavalryman like Gramps. But it would never happen. He was needed here, even though his father said otherwise.

His fine-featured face crumpled as Grandpa's words came back to him. The stallion was as fast as a bolt of lightning.

Suppose it were true? Could any horse be faster than Swish? It had been ten years since that race in the canyon, if the stories Grandpa told were true. That mustang would be older, but not too old to race.

Jim thought of Grandpa's next words, echoing in his mind. If I saw it again, I'd be complete. Grandpa longed to see the mustang again. Could it happen? Would Grandpa ever see the rugged, wild stallion again?

Swish's hooves clattered along the plains. No, it wasn't possible. The mustang was probably dead by now, or driven from his own herd by a younger horse. There were so many possibilities, and the chances of that stallion still living in the Cimarron were unlikely.

But if it was still in the Cimarron.

Jim shook his head. He loved his grandpa, but he wouldn't do anything foolish to please him.

Day slowly faded into evening. The sun had nearly set by the time Jim reached the fort. Taking Swish for a run served two purposes. One, Swish and he could spend some time racing together. Two, he could deliver Grandpa's messages to his old friends back at the fort. Grandpa was in his fifties now, nearly sixty, and couldn't go riding. Well, he could, but the ride would take him all day. So Jim always went for him.

The gates opened up for him just as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. He hadn't meant for the reunion to keep him this long. It looked as if he would be staying overnight. Which could be fun, considering the soldiers always had fantastic tales to tell. Some were even better than Grandpa's.

"What do you have for us, Jim?" asked Colonel Pete. Since his grandfather had left, Pete had upped in rank and was now the head of the fort.

"What do you think, Pete?" Jim asked with a smile. "I'm here for a visit, that's all."

"Don't play games with me," Pete said playfully. "I'll run you down."

"Like the old mustang ran you down?"

Pete laughed. "Oh, was today the family reunion?"

"Absolutely." Jim smiled.

Pete helped Jim down from the saddle and ordered the nearest private to take Swish to the stables. "And give her the best," he added. The private nodded.

Pete led Jim into his own private quarters, the same quarters that Grandpa had lived in. It was a small cabin, built into one side of the fort. Several windows allowed enough light in to write down the daily orders, or to read the daily courier messages. One of the windows looked out of the very fort itself. Another looked into the center of the fort, right at the pen. Jim looked through that window as the stars came out. It was the very window his grandfather had looked through and watched numerous horses be broken.

Discipline, time, and patience...

Nothing was happening now. A distant wolf could be heard howling at the moon or his comrades, but other than that the fort was quiet. The soldiers, with the exception of those on guard duty, were retiring for the night.

Jim sighed. A military life would be astounding.

"You sound disappointed in something, Jim," Pete said, sitting down in the chair behind the only desk in the room. "Why don't you sit down while I read your grandpa's message?"

Pete motioned to a chair across from the desk, and Jim slowly walked over to it. But he didn't sit. His eyes locked onto the window behind Pete, the window that looked out of the fort.

He thought he saw something moving out there.

"Have you released some horses?" he asked.

Pete looked up from Grandpa's message. "What?"

"There was something out there."

Pete turned in his chair to look outside. Squinting his eyes, he searched the landscape. "I don't see anything. Probably just a wild horse running around. They're here a lot."

"I see." Jim sat down. He drew his attention to the message in Pete's hand. "So what's it say?"

Pete looked up from the paper. His eyes met Jim for a moment, and suddenly it felt as though something pierced his stomach. Pete's eyes were grim, but he quickly averted his eyes and said, "Nothing too unusual. Just business regarding the ranch, letting us know how he is."

Jim looked at Pete warily. He was lying.

"But, anyway, you had better get some rack time. The courier has gone to deliver some messages for us all the way up in Denver, so his quarters are open. I'll have one of the privates show you the way."

Both of them stood. Jim's eyes followed Pete's hands as they quickly shoved the message into a desk drawer. "Do you sleep in here, Pete?"

"What? No, these are my working quarters. I sleep one cabin over."

"Oh. Well, it was nice seeing you again." They shook hands. "I'll probably be gone before the bugle sounds."

Pete chuckled. "Of course you will be. Early risers always get things accomplished. Your grandpa used to say that."

"I bet he did."

"I'll write a message for him tonight. You just come in here in the morning and it'll be on the desk. Take it with you, all right?"

Which makes it that much easier, Jim thought.

"Will do, Pete. See you later."

"Good night, Jim."

Jim opened the door and walked out into the cool night air.

...the three great levelers...

"Grandpa, I won't let you down."

***

Jim was up before anyone else. Quickly he made the bed sheets and put on his clothes, then stepped outside. The sun wasn't even up past the horizon, making it a little dark outside. He looked over at the stables and saw Swish. In a moment he'd be with her. She stamped her fore hooves impatiently.

He walked across the interior of the fort, past the breaking pen and the stables as well. The door to Pete's office was unlocked, so he quietly slipped inside. The message to his grandfather from Pete was on the desk. Stuffing it in his pocket with one hand, he opened the drawer to the desk with the other. His grandfather's message was in there. He unfolded it and read it aloud.

"Dear Pete,

How are you, my old friend? I have missed you greatly. I would like to come visit the old fort and see how it is doing, how my men are doing, but I don't think I'm up for it. My back isn't in the shape it used to be, if you know what I mean. Jim is good enough to take these messages to you. He's got the strength and the will to ride. I miss the days in which I did.

I'm not feeling too well these days, Pete. I'm not that old, but yet I feel as though the world is passing me by so quickly. I can't keep up anymore, and even the memories are fading. All the memories except for the ones of the fort. Those were the best days of my life.

And so I have a favor to ask of you, a great favor. This is like nothing before, and I would understand if you wouldn't do it. It involves an old friend. I think we both know who I'm talking about.

I want to see him again. I've thought about him so much these past months, more than I ever have. I don't know how it can be done, but I know that if there were one person who could do it, it'd be you, Pete.

As I said before, I understand if it cannot be done. Lately it's been haunting my dreams, and I don't feel complete anymore. That is the one thing above all that I want right now.

Please write back, good friend. I will have Jim deliver another message in a weeks' time."

Below, Grandpa had signed his name.

Jim looked up from the letter. "I knew it. I knew it all along."

He put the letter back in the drawer and ran out to Swish. Hastily he saddled her, and was on her back in no time. He rode up to the nearest watchman, who was up on the wall.

"Excuse me!" he called. The watchman looked at him sleepily. "Where is the nearest Lakota village?"

"It's straight north of here, about five miles. Why?"

"Thanks!"

The gate swung open and Jim kicked Swish in the sides. She sprinted forward, thankful for the exercise. He let up on the reins, giving her freedom. She remained running forward, knowing what Jim wanted from her.

He rode and reached the Lakota village in about two hours, stopping only to let Swish drink from a nearby creek or to let her rest. They came over a large hill and could see the village, spotted with teepees, down below. A river was on the left side, running north and south. To the right, near a forest, was a horse-training pen. Jim smiled. The descriptions his grandfather had given him matched this village.

Swish loped the way down the grassy knoll, grunting in exhaustion. Several of the Lakota were outside, speaking in their strange tongue. One looked up and, seeing Jim and Swish approaching, stood up and quickly walked to meet them. He stopped them next to the teepee furthest from the village.

"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked, struggling with his English. "You are not welcome here."

Jim spoke slowly. "I am looking for Little Creek."

"Who are you?"

"My name is Jim. I just need to ask Little Creek a few questions."

"I do not think so-"

Suddenly a voice, speaking in the natives' language, sprung to life. The Lakota looked back toward the center of the village. Jim, too, looked. A muscular young man, maybe in his late twenties, was swiftly approaching them. He was wearing unusual pants (compared to Jim's), no shirt, and had his black hair in two long braids that came down either shoulder.

The original Lakota responded. Suddenly the two of them became engaged in conversation, every once in a while looking at Jim.

"Uh. excuse me," said Jim, interrupting. "Am I wasting my time here?"

"I am Little Creek," said the second Lakota, whose English was much better than the first's. "You wish to speak with me?"

"Yes, I do."

With a cautious glance at the first Lakota, Little Creek gestured for Jim to follow him. "Leave your horse with him. He will take care of her."

Jim nodded and slid off Swish's back. She was tense, uneasy. He patted her reassuringly on the neck and followed Little Creek into the nearest teepee.

Little Creek sat down inside. "What is it you want?"

Jim did not sit. He remained standing near the entrance, his arms crossed. "I want to find him."

"Find who?" Little Creek asked innocently.

"You know who I'm talking about. Him."

"No, I do not know who you speak of. Tell me."

"The leader of the Cimarron herd. The local hero. Legend of the Lakota village."

"Leader, hero, and legend? Not too many around here fit that description."

"The mustang. The mustang that would not give in, that you stole from the cavalry fort and escaped with. The mustang that supposedly destroyed an entire railroad station up north near Utah."

"Tall tales," said Little Creek, unimpressed. "And the story is wrong."

"How so?"

"Your grandfather held me prisoner, and I fled. The mustang only helped. But once he saved my life, and I repaid him by taking him from the railroad."

Jim was shocked. "How... how do you know that he was my grandfather?"

Little Creek stood up and looked straight into his eyes. "Your eyes. And your voice. I will never forget his eyes or his voice."

"I see." Jim regretted accusing him so harshly. But to apologize would be. demeaning. "Can you help me?"

"I named him Spirit-Who-Could-Not-Be-Broken. Even if you found him, I doubt you could force him into doing your bidding."

"I don't want help getting him to do what I want. I want help finding him. Do you know where the herd is?"

"I don't. Even if I did, why would I tell you? You would only attempt to capture him and train him, using fear as a tool."

"My grandfather wants to see him again. He feels his life will not be complete without it. It means a lot to him."

"I do not care for your grandfather or what he wants." Little Creek waved a hand at him. "You should leave now. I refuse to help you. Spirit-Who- Could-Not-Be-Broken will live in peace."

Jim's face twisted in anger. But he remained calm. "I understand. I must find him on my own, then."

Without looking at Little Creek again, he turned and walked out of the teepee. Swish was tied to the nearest wooden pole, and he quickly untied the rope and got on her back. Pulling the reins, he turned her around and was about to make her gallop when he heard Little Creek's voice.

"You'll need this."

Jim turned around. In Little Creek's hand was a large knapsack. Jim took it and looked inside. Plenty of food to last him two or three days.

"You do get hungry, do you not?" asked Little Creek with a smile.

"Thank you," said Jim, returning the smile.

"And this," said Little Creek, raising a black-tipped feather. "I would like you to return it to a friend. Her name is Rain; she went with Spirit."

Little Creek's voice trailed off. A tear came to his eye and he looked down. Jim put his hand on the Lakota's shoulder and took the feather. Putting it in his breast pocket, he said, "Of course I will."

He turned in the saddle, facing forward, and kicked Swish in the side. With Jim on her back, she ran up the hill and stopped to take a look at the immediate area. According to Grandfather's description, the river continued running until it dropped from a waterfall and gathered in a pond below. No more than a mile north was the nearest train station. And that railroad led up to the one that had been wrecked by Spirit, if the stories were true.

Some had said that, seeing the valleys and mountain ranges atop one hill, the mustang had fallen. They assumed he was dead, and intended to bury him. But he was not dead; he sprang back to life and somehow managed to ruin everything, preventing the train from connecting with Utah. There was a connection. Something about the valleys and that mountain range. That was the very heart of the Cimarron. It was the perfect place for a stallion to keep his mares.

Immediately Jim made up his mind. He would follow the railroad until he reached the station, where the railroad branched. From there he would make his way up the hill and look for that mountain range. Wherever it was, he would go. Even if it meant backtracking the entire trip.

"Hyah!" he shouted, and at the same time kicking Swish in the side. She hurled forward into a gallop.

***

He reached the train station around midnight. The journey was long and hard, but he and Swish had managed. Jim had a feeling of accomplishment after riding this far on his own, and couldn't help but enter the train station with a smug grin on his face.

By this time, the railroad had connected with Utah. Spirit had only delayed the inevitable, it seemed. The workers had picked up the work with renewed vigor after that terrible accident, rebuilding everything quickly in order to get back to work as soon as possible.

There was a fireplace inside the station, keeping the cabin nice and warm. He walked up to the clerk, who was amazingly still at work during this time of night.

"Excuse me," said Jim. The clerk looked up from his work. "I need a place for my horse and a room for me."

The workers had recently added a hotel to the station, perfect for travelers (like Jim) who were passing by.

"At this time of night the money comes up front," said the man in a gruff voice. His body, big and burly, matched his voice. "And as for your horse, you can tie him up on the post."

"Her," said Jim. "My horse is a female."

"Whatever. D'you have the money for the room?"

"How much is it?"

The clerk gave the dollar amount for the night and Jim quickly paid in order to receive the key to any room with a bed. He quickly went outside, unsaddled Swish, and went up to the room, bringing Swish's dressings with him. Of course, it wouldn't hurt to leave the stuff on, but Swish would probably be more comfortable this way.

The instant his head was on the pillow, he was asleep.

***

The morning brought a new energy to Jim, and he was ready to tackle any obstacles. First, he checked out of the hotel and thanked the clerk, then saddled and fed Swish. He swung up onto her back and they were off, following one of the railroad tracks that led up the hill. He ate the meal that Little Creek had provided on the way up.

It was a long climb, exhausting poor Swish, but the view was magnificent. Other than the railroad itself, the ground was hardly scathed by humans, and lining either side were the pine trees that Jim loved so much. Swish walked up the hill steadily, panting with the exertion. Jim patted her on the neck reassuringly.

And they reached the top of the hill. Ahead of him was a beautiful landscape, something out of the stories his mother would tell him when he was young. A lake shimmered in the early morning sunlight next to a snow- capped mountain. Green, grassy fields with rolling hills surrounded the area, which was specked with pine trees.

Jim's jaw dropped.

There was a dot on the plains, a mass of brown and golden that was moving slowly across. Jim's heart leaped in realization. It was the Cimarron herd! It hadn't been so hard to find after all.

Kicking Swish in the sides again, he whooped and hollered with joy. Swish jovially sprinted forward, her mane flying in the wind.

How was he to do it? Would he charge in there without warning? Or would he hide and wait for Spirit to pass by, unsuspecting? He had brought a rope with him, as he always did on trips to the fort. Just how he would do it, he didn't yet know.

But he had to think quickly. In a few hours he would reach his ultimate destination. He slowed Swish down; she would need to conserve her energy for the upcoming chase. Jim was sure that she would be able to outrun the tired old stallion. A grin formed on his face when, in his mind, he pictured Swish and Spirit racing head-to-head, Swish slowly pulling ahead and making old Spirit look like a newborn colt.

Pulling his mind from this picture was difficult. He needed to concentrate on what he was going to do about catching Spirit. A trap would work nicely, but a flat-out chase might be more enthralling. A tale of a chase, running down the old stallion, would certainly defeat Grandpa's stories.

Swish slowed to an easy walk as they made their way up a second hill. This one wasn't as high or steep as the first. Which was very good, considering he wanted Swish to keep her energy.

A flat-out chase. That would be fun. That's what he would do. He and Swish would beat Spirit at his own game, capture him when he was doing what he did best. Jim patted Swish on the neck. He wondered if she was feeling jittery with excitement, too. It was possible, since she continually attempted to sprint forward into a gallop. She most certainly would have, if it weren't for Jim pulling back on the reins slightly. Swish tossed her head in frustration with her master.

"Come on, girl, we're almost there," he said in a reassuring tone. "Not too much longer."

A small creek appeared from within the forest, and Jim stopped Swish for a drink. He filled up his own flask, then saddled Swish and continued on his journey.

It wasn't too much longer before he found himself in the grasslands, with the crystal lake on the right, the mountains on the left, and the trees specked on the landscape. Diligently his eyes searched for the herd, for proof of the herd, but he found none.

Where could they be? He led Swish up to the lake. To his right, past the lake, was a hill high enough to allow anyone to see the entire valley. Guiding Swish over to the top of this hill, he continued to search.

They reached the top of the hill. Jim was scanning the entire area from this vantage point and Swish nickered softly. She seemed nervous, upset.

"What's wrong, girl?"

In the next instant, he knew what had been bothering Swish. Thunder. Roaring thunder, coming from the lower part of the hill on the right. He inched Swish forward, attempting to see whatever it was that was coming for them. The thunder was definitely getting louder and closer. Jim's heart refused to keep from beating against his chest.

For a moment the thunder ceased. Then, as quickly as it had stopped, it came back, this time with a deafening clarity that pounded in Jim's ears. But it was the sight that made him speechless.

The herd appeared up over the hill, running together as one through the valley. Swish whinnied and whirled on her hind legs. A stallion that could only be Spirit raged on ahead of the herd, his legs racing with a fury that Jim had never seen before in a horse.

He fought for control of Swish as the herd split up and ran beside them on either side. All he could hear was the thundering of the hooves. He shouted to Swish, but she couldn't hear him. He pulled the reins back, attempting to make her stop.

But she wouldn't stop. She surged forward, remaining side by side with the mares, easily passing one, and then the next. Swish was ready for the chase. Spirit was only six feet up ahead. His lengthy tail unfurled out behind him like a graceful banner.

Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, Jim leaned forward and urged Swish to gallop faster. Her own tremendous spirit surged forth, and Jim could feel it overflowing onto him. They were in the chase, and it was the most exhilarating event in Jim's life.

Spirit's head turned. The stallion saw he was being chased and barked out at his mares, as if shouting out orders. Immediately the mares split away from them, turning right and heading for the lake. Spirit surged forward, and Swish was on his heels.

Knowing that he would soon be overtaken, Spirit turned sharply to the left and sprang over a fallen tree. Swish followed suit, but was encumbered by her rider. She barely cleared it, her hooves clicking as they lightly struck the top of the log. Jim's gut wrenched from the landing. But Swish maintained her speed, and quickly made up the lost space between her and Spirit.

Jim lost all his senses somewhere amidst the pounding hooves, his heavy breathing, and Swish's own snorting. His eyes focused only on the stallion, his mane and tail flowing freely behind him. Jim couldn't feel his boots digging into the heels or the uncomfortable saddle behind him. All he could see was the stallion.

The stallion plunged into a thick clump of trees, swerving in and out of them. It was apparent that the stallion had been chased by humans on horses before; he headed straight for the low-hanging branches. Jim ducked low and clung to the reins. Just in time, for his cowboy hat was torn from his head by one of the limbs. Branches and tree limbs whooshed overhead as Swish carved her own path between the trees and through the forest. She wasn't even panting.

Spirit didn't even seem frightened. Jim had no time to think about this peculiar fact as the trees disappeared and an expanse of grass opened up before them. This could be dangerous, Jim realized. The grass was so high that he could not see the ground. Spirit might easily dodge any pits in the ground, but Swish wasn't accustomed to this particular area.

They were passing through the area without any trouble, and Jim disregarded that last notion. Swish was quickly gaining on Spirit. The stallion was getting too old for this. Already he was panting and snorting.

Just give up now, he thought, as if the mustang could hear his thoughts. But if the stallion gave up, the thrill of the chase would end.

Latching his left hand securely in the reins, Jim pulled up his rope. Whirling it above his head, he shouted in ecstasy. The stallion was his! He prepared for the final swing, in which he would release the rope and watch it close over the neck of the stallion.

Suddenly Spirit slowed and, before Jim knew it, was right next to Swish. Jim saw a mischievous glint in the core of Spirit's eye, and his own eyes widened. Spirit lunged. Jim felt something slam into his right elbow and in the next instant he was falling.

Swish's hooves pounded ahead of him. Pain coursed through his chest, stomach, and legs. He howled in pain and kept his head up, away from the coarse, shifting plates beneath him. His right wrist hurt very badly.

He opened his eyes and realized that he was being dragged through the grass. His right hand had managed to hold on to the rope, which was still wrapped around the saddle horn. Grass was being flung everywhere, it seemed, and the swishing of the grass was nearly deafening in his ears. However, it was providing for him a nice, cushioned ride. But if he didn't get back up or free himself soon, they would be out of the grass and the pain would be even greater.

Thinking of how proud he was of Swish, keeping up with Spirit without a rider and all, gave him more energy to pull his way forward. He grunted with the strain, and did his best to keep away from Swish's deadly hooves.

He came up to the side of Swish and was losing his balance. He would get caught under her soon if he didn't do something. He reached up and grabbed the left stirrup, which caused his legs to get dangerously near to hers. Wrenching himself upward, he unintentionally loosened the cinch, but his right leg went up and over the saddle. His left dangled over the passing ground and his body was leaning to the left. The saddle was slowly sliding, and would eventually slide to Swish's side. And take him with it.

"Sorry, girl," he said, grabbing her neck and pulling himself the rest of the way up. He readjusted the saddle, which loosened the cinch even more, then pulled in the rest of the rope.

He looked forward. "Good girl," he said with a smile. Swish had diligently continued to follow Spirit.

Spirit headed for that same fallen log. They were out of the deep grass and onto the plains again, near the lake. Spirit had led them in a huge circle that went through that small forest, the grasslands, and back around to that stupid old log.

Jim smiled. He could easily cut Spirit off as the stallion made the jump over the log. He tugged the reins to the left. Swish didn't respond. He pulled harder. She wouldn't budge; she was fixed on chasing Spirit.

"No, girl! Turn!" shouted Jim. He yanked on the reins again and still she did not give in. "Don't jump the-"

Too late. Spirit had bounded over the log and Swish was in the air. Her hooves found the ground and she immediately continued in the chase.

The landing was a hard jolt, which wrenched the cinch completely loose. Jim felt it come undone beneath him. The saddle was rocking way too much.

"Stupid old thing!"

Spirit turned left. Swish followed him. The saddle, with Jim on it, slid to the right.

"Whoooaa!"

Jim's left arm wrapped around Swish's neck. He straightened himself up again, but the saddle was lost. It fell off the side and rolled on the ground. It disappeared behind Swish. The saddle blanket went with it.

"Bareback it is, then," said Jim. But he wasn't so pleased; Swish's spine had a tendency to dig into him, which was rather unpleasant. Suddenly his right hand, the one holding the rope, wrenched back. He looked back. The rope was still wrapped around the horn of the saddle!

He cursed and pulled the rope up, careful to keep the saddle away from Swish's legs. Lifting the saddle up, he quickly unwrapped the rope and dropped the saddle. If it made any noise, he didn't hear it.

Now that his own problems were out of the way, Jim concentrated on the chase. Swish wasn't slowing down. In fact, she seemed to speed up with each stride. Spirit was the one slowing down.

"I've got you now, Spirit," he said. He whirled the rope above his head, this time remembering to remain quiet as he did so.

He was too far away, though. Swish was gaining, but he wasn't close enough to get the rope around Spirit's neck. But if he missed, he could always try again.

The goal was so near! It was within his grasp! He could taste it! He had never understood his grandfather, not until now. This was amazing. He would accomplish what his grandfather and his men could not.

He stretched his arm forward, releasing the rope. Time suddenly slowed. Spirit's hooves were no longer a blur; the sound of each of them striking the ground was amplified with amazing clarity. The rope soared in the air, straight for Spirit's head. Jim's lips pursed. Each bead of sweat registered in his brain. Swish's head bobbing up and down, too, was slowed. He could even feel the feather as it slipped from his breast pocket and was carried away by the air.

Reality struck. A blur crossed his path, right to left. He heard a shout, and the rope was wrenched from his grasp. Swish's hooves stuck in the ground, and she skidded forward. Spirit was running, his size diminishing as his escape was made apparent. Jim's head wanted to explode.

Jim was nearly flung over Swish's neck as she came to a stop, panting. He, too, was gasping for breath, but not from exhaustion. Victory was so close that now, since his failure was complete, he felt weak.

His eyes barely managed to focus on another horse that was galloping up to Spirit. The stallion had stopped by the lake, also gasping for breath. The chase had worn everybody out, even the fabled Spirit.

The horse, a paint by the looks of it, stopped in front of Spirit. Its rider (Jim just now realized that it had a rider) slowly stepped off. It was Little Creek. And he no longer looked old.

He approached Spirit carefully, sensitively. Spirit looked up and recognition seemed to appear in his experienced eyes. Slowly he walked to meet Little Creek. The Lakota stopped and raised his right hand. Spirit nudged the hand with his nose. Little Creek smiled and said something in his native language.

What is this? Jim asked himself.

Little Creek gave Spirit a pat on the neck, then turned to face the paint. He lovingly stroked her neck and held up a small object to the horse. It lowered its head and allowed Little Creek to place a feather in its mane.

Jim suddenly looked in his breast pocket and groaned.

Little Creek turned from the horse and walked over to Jim, whose eyes were downcast. Suddenly he felt very ashamed. The Lakota approached him and stopped in front of him. Jim was surprised to feel a strong hand on his shoulder.

"You did well, my friend," said Little Creek.

Jim looked up. "What?"

"You led me straight to her. These past several weeks I have searched for her, but I had no luck. Somehow, your tracking skills proved greater than mine."

"All I did was follow the railroad. And who are you talking about?"

"The paint. Rain is her name. I've longed to see her for years. When you came to the camp, I didn't think you could find them. But I saw the longing in your eyes, too. You were determined, more than your grandfather was, to capture Spirit."

"But. why couldn't you find them? You know this region better than any of..." Jim struggled for the right words. "...my people."

"Ah, yes, you followed the railroad. Do you know how many railroads branch from that one station? I could never have figured out which one to follow. Only someone who had heard from the workers which railroad had been demolished by Spirit would know which one to take. I'm not very accepted among..." Little Creek smiled. "...your people."

"So... you used me to get to Rain?"

"No. I used your ambition." Little Creek's smile became even wider. "I thank you greatly."

Jim managed a smile. Although he had not accomplished his goal, he felt very good about himself, about everything. Swish tossed her head and neighed lightly, as if she felt the same way. "It was... nothing."

"You must promise me something." Little Creek's voice was suddenly very solemn, his eyes dark and concrete.

"What is it?" Jim asked.

"Promise me you'll never tell anyone where you found them."

Jim smiled. "And if I did?"

Little Creek thought about his answer for a moment. He looked deeply into Jim's eyes. "Then you would have to live with yourself for the rest of your life."

The words dug through his flesh and into his very heart. He understood. Protecting this herd was Little Creek's one and only concern. If something were to happen to it, who knew what would happen to the man?

"I promise."

Little Creek smiled. "Thank you, my friend. Maybe we'll meet again?"

"Yes, maybe." Jim got up onto Swish's back as Little Creek put his fingers in his mouth and whistled. A beautiful palomino trotted up to him and he jumped onto her back. He kicked the palomino in the sides and they were off. Jim could see Little Creek looking straight at Rain as they left the valley.

Jim watched as Little Creek and his new horse disappeared beyond the valley. Then he squeezed his heels into Swish's sides. She began walking forward at an easy pace. Jim's gaze turned to the herd, which had gathered by the lake and was grazing as night began to fall.

"See you later, Spirit," he said quietly. "It was nice meeting you."

As he, too, rode out of the valley, an exciting thought popped into his mind.

Now I have a story to match even that of Grandpa's.