“Free as the Stars” by Danika J.

Age 14, Grade 9
Fort Collins, CO
Read by Max Raphael

“Rojo!” The young chestnut stallion Rojo looked up at his majestic father’s call.

“Yes. sir?” Rojo asked. He picked his way through the sagebrush towards his chocolate palomino father, Jay.

“Do you know how your older brothers have all left the herd?” Jay began.

“Yes, father,” Rojo said with a tinge of apprehension in his voice.

“As your father, I have to teach you. Rojo, you are now two years old and big enough to be on your own. The time has come for you to leave the herd and start your own family as your brothers before you. Do you understand?” Jay explained. Rojo’s heart sank, and he lowered his head. Rojo went to find his snow-white mother. She whinnied to him when she saw him.

“Goodbye, Mama. I love you,” Rojo sighed. His wise old mother immediately understood and pressed her face to his.

“The star horses will protect you. Goodbye, my beautiful son,” his mother expressed. Rojo turned away from his mother and cantered away from the herd. He glanced back every so often until he couldn’t see his wonderful mother.

Rojo jumped and skittered sideways. He felt nervous and unprotected alone. Now that night had fallen, Rojo was thoroughly terrified. Rojo looked up at the beautiful stars. “Maybe they will help me,” he wondered. A dazzling streak of white lit up the sky. A shooting star! He took this as a sign of good luck and kept walking through the cold night. The sparse brown grass crinkled under his hooves as he walked. His mother had told him stories of how centuries ago before the humans came the land used to be lush and green with plenty of water. She told him of how the land had belonged to the horses, and they were free to wander wherever they pleased. The horses were completely free and knew nothing of humans.

Sheep and cattle now resided on the land that once belonged solely to the horses. Horses were rounded up and taken away from the wildlands. Rojo shuddered at the thought of being captured. He was happy to be free of all the worries of the domesticated animals. Rojo suddenly shot off into a gallop, bucking and reveling in the pure freedom of being himself. He ate up the ground with his hooves and shot forward even faster. The scratchy sagebrush scraped his legs, but he didn’t care! Sheer exuberance radiated off the young stallion. The night was his. He stopped suddenly and stood proud with his head held high in the air. A loud bugle escaped his body and echoed through the still night. He was a stallion now!

Rojo woke up with a start. He expected his herd to surround him, but they were gone. Rojo sighed. He missed the company and security of the other horses. Especially his best friend, a pretty mare named Bailey. He shook his shining chestnut body and took a step forward. He badly needed to find water. He took off at a swinging trot with his ears pricked and eyes bright. The early rays of the sun warmed the young stallion’s coat. His breath came out in big plumy clouds out of his nostrils. He spotted a watering hole. A herd of horses took turns drinking the cool water in it. A small tough-looking bay stallion stood to watch over his mares and his water. Rojo knew he would have to be careful about the way he went about this. All he wanted to do was get a drink of water. He slowly inched forward. The bay stallion immediately spotted him and watched him warily. The stallion trotted over with his ears flat back against his head.

“Uh hi,” Rojo said nervously. Rojo tried to act non-threatening and small.

“Who are you?” the bay asked, scrutinizing him.

“I-I’m Rojo. I need some water. Could I please have a little sip?” Rojo asked.

“No! This is my water and my mares!” The stallion yelled angrily and charged Rojo. The stallion knocked Rojo to the ground immediately. Rojo jumped up and galloped away at full speed, completely terrified.

Rojo ran until he could not anymore. Thick, white sweat poured off his body. Rojo slowed to a trot then a walk. He gasped for air. In the distance, Rojo spotted a jet-black horse. He pricked his ears in interest. A golden buckskin joined the other horse. “Please don’t see me!” Rojo thought nervously. Unfortunately, they did.

“Hey! You there!” the black horse hissed. Rojo considered running away but was too exhausted.

“Me?” Rojo mumbled.

“Yes, you!” the black horse scoffed.

“W-What do you want?”, squeaked Rojo.

“I’m Bruno. This is Dakota. Who are you? And where’d you come from?” the black stallion probed.

“I’m Rojo. I came from the Sequoia herd.” Rojo explained.

“Oh, nice! We are from the Silver valley herd” The buckskin Dakota, remarked.

“Dakota! He’s not supposed to know that! I’m interrogating him!” Bruno huffed.

“Oh, come on! He’s a bachelor stallion just like us. Can he stay with us?” Dakota whined. Rojo nodded in agreement. Bruno sighed.

“Fine!” Bruno snapped.

“Sweet!” Dakota bubbled.

“Awesome, but could we please find some water? I am so thirsty.” Rojo asked.

“Oh yeah of course! Follow me!” Dakota replied. The golden buckskin turned and marched away. Rojo followed. As the trio walked, Rojo told them all about him and his story. Dakota was shocked about what happened with the stallion, but Bruno shrugged it aside. Rojo learned that the two horses had lived in the same herd together as foals, but when their father banished them, they had just stayed together. “Maybe I could be friends with these guys,” Rojo thought. Rojo was thrilled about being in a herd again, even if it wasn’t the typical kind. Finally, they reached a watering hole. Strangely there were no horses around.
“The cattle use it normally” Dakota explained. “That explains the absence of horses,” Rojo noted in his mind.

They trudged through the sticky mud to the water. Rojo pushed his entire head in and drank the lukewarm water. After drinking his fill, he lowered himself into the water and rolled, washing the crusty sweat off his body. The other horses rolled in the water too. Dakota splashed both Rojo and Bruno. Without hesitation, Rojo jumped right in and splashed Dakota back. The young horses played hard splashing and slipping in the water. Suddenly, a huge bull appeared, followed by a few cows. The horses immediately froze. The bull watched them warily before charging them. The trio scrambled up the bank and galloped away. Once clear of the bull, they all laughed hysterically. They played a little more, then settled down to eat.

Rojo stirred in his sleep and awoke. It was still night, and the stars and moon shined brightly above. Rojo gazed at them dreamily. Rojo was sleeping at the bottom of a small hill. Suddenly, he felt compelled to canter up it. Rojo started up the hill at a steady pace. He reached the top and surveyed the land. He was surprised when he spotted a small herd of three horses. Rojo inspected the horses. His eyes suddenly locked onto a graceful pinto mare. Her long shimmering tail swished lazily back and forth. Splashes of light cream swirled on her pretty white coat. She daintily stepped through the grass. Rojo was immediately madly in love with her. He was completely entranced by her. He gawked at the exquisite mare. When the mare noticed him, he grew embarrassed. He was released from the mare’s trance, and he cantered back down the hill back to his friends.

“Dude! Where were you?!” Bruno whispered. Both his friends were staring at him.

“There’s a herd over the hill with the most beautiful mare” Rojo sighed dreamily. This got Bruno’s attention immediately.

“Really!?” Bruno effused.

“Let’s go!” Dakota sang. Rojo nodded and led his friends over the hill.

“whoa” they both cried in unison. Bruno immediately cantered down the hill towards the herd.

“Bruno!!!” hissed Rojo.

“Wait is he going to challenge the stallion!?” Rojo breathed.

“Yup! I’m going too!” Dakota cried and raced down the hill. Rojo was horrified that his friends would be so bold. The stallion only had three mares and no foals! Rojo wasn’t sure how he had such beautiful young mares. Bruno and Dakota circled the old stallion. The mares watched the scene intently. Suddenly, Bruno reared and struck the stallion. The stallion whirled around and kicked Bruno hard in the chest. This action just made Bruno angry. He attacked the stallion viscously and knocked him to the ground. Dakota swooped in and began to bite and kick at the old stallion. Rojo tore down the hill towards his friends.

“STOP!” He screamed. His friends stopped attacking the stallion and stared at him quizzically.

“He’s already down there’s no need to kill him!” Rojo cried urgently. Dakota glanced at the old stallion whimpering on the ground.

“I guess you’re right” Dakota shrugged and sauntered over to a blue roan mare. Bruno was a little harder to convince.

“No, he deserves it!” Bruno commanded.

“He doesn’t! You just came for the mares not to kill the stallion!” Rojo barked with his ears pinned back. Bruno pinned his ears at Rojo but walked over to the mares. Dakota had disappeared with the blue roan mare. Bruno examined the two remaining mares. The pinto mare shifted anxiously. Bruno chose the dark grey mare. Rojo breathed a sigh of relief. He had gotten the mare he had wished for! With a start, he realized it was Bailey! Bailey immediately galloped towards him. When they reached each other, they craned their necks around each other and drank each other’s scent in. Together they raced away across the plains their long tails flowing behind them. They were as free as the stars.