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"Down, girl! Steady!" Jeanne Tucker clutched the reins and tried to keep her seat as the frightened Appaloosa reared wildly. The skittish mare came down on all fours and backed up a step, her eyes showing white and rolling at the leaves swirling on a gust of wind. Jeanne clung to the horse with knees and hands, using all the tricks her brother had taught her to bring the Appaloosa under control.
The horse reared again. "Down, Robin!" Jeanne jerked the reins and managed to turn the big head as the mare tried to bolt off the trail into the dark tangle of trees. Robin tossed her head, fighting the bit, whinnying with fear.
Finally, the mare quieted. Jeanne carefully released one hand from the reins to stroke the night-black neck. "Easy, girl. Easy now." The horse stood quietly, calming under the continuous flow of talk and patting. Jeanne could feel the taut coil of fear loosen, the mare's body slowly relaxing beneath her.
"Silly. A bunch of dried-up old leaves and you act as if a ghost is after you. Maybe you ought to write that essay on the haunted tree for me. You certainly get scared often enough."
Robin swung her head back, nickering softly, and Jeanne suddenly felt tears of frustration springing to her eyes. "Oh, why can't you behave, Robin? You know Mike's going to sell you if you keep this up! He almost sold you last time, when I ended up in the hospital, but I promised you would behave. You've got to, girl!"
She wiped her eyes on the rough sleeve of her brother's red wool jacket and shook her long brown hair back over one shoulder. "We'd better get home, girl, before anything else happens."
Despite her words, the girl sat still a moment longer. The wood rustled softly about them, leaves painted the color of flames by the setting sun. Now why did I feel that I had to come to Wilson's Forest today? she wondered. Especially at this time of the afternoon. She shook her head and nudged the mare into a walk. I certainly wasn't thinking straight, or else I wouldn't have brought Robin here. Starbolt or Firebird would have ignored the shadows and leaves, but not my poor Robin.
The Appaloosa shivered, nickering uneasily. Jeanne patted the smooth neck. "I know, honey. It's dark and spooky out here." That does it, she decided. Feelings or no feelings, I'm getting Robin home.
She eyed the deepening shadows of the forest preserve, breathed in the dusky scent of autumn. The soft clops of Robin's hooves on the dirt trail and the creak of the saddle echoed in the stillness.
She tensed and pulled the mare to a halt, hearing voices raised in anger above the rustling leaves. Jeanne glanced about nervously, recognizing the thick stand of trees. Oh gosh, I'm practically right by the haunted tree! She shook herself. You're more of a chicken than Robin. Ghosts out in daylight? Angry ghosts?
Listening to the irate mutter of the voices, she dismounted and pulled Robin onto a tiny path almost hidden by thick bushes. The path was seldom used. People usually stayed away from the haunted tree.
Jeanne shivered as she came within sight of the tree. Almost thirteen and you still believe in Grandpa's stories? she scolded herself. Trees don't move. She shivered again.
The tree did look haunted. The huge trunk of the ancient oak was bent and twisted with age and the heavy snows of past winters. The branches were bare of leaves even in the summer and the lower ones resembled twisted claws waiting to grab anyone who came too close.
She saw the Burns twins arguing in the clearing before the tree and paused a moment in surprise. Peter and Jody were new to town–their parents had moved in just before school started–but even newcomers would have been warned about the tree. Peter reached up and pulled one of the dangling, claw-like branches down. Jeanne caught her breath and almost called out a warning, but Peter had released the branch after a curious glance.
It figures, she thought. Miss Long says to write something about the haunted tree, so Peter comes and studies it as if it was a specimen in biology class. She glanced at her watch. He skipped gymnastics practice to be here at this time. Why? Wonder what Jody's doing here.
Jody appeared to be arguing with her twin. Peter ignored her, brushing his dusty hands on his jacket and jeans. The fraternal twins were so different that the term "twin" didn't seem to apply to them. Peter was a little shorter than his sister and his hair was sandy where hers was pale blonde. Their personalities differed also. Peter was more independent and often seemed older than his twelve years. Jody, on the other hand…
Jeanne cut off that line of thought. Now that she was closer, she could feel the hot flames of anger within the two. Now how do I do that? she wondered, asking the same tired question. How is it that I always know what people are feeling?
She turned away and began to lead Robin back to the main trail. Robin tossed her head and suddenly whinnied.
Copyright © 2003 by Kathryn Sullivan