“We have to get out,” Karma said.
We could see our father in the front seat, struggling with the door.
I crawled across what had been the roof of the car and pulled myself out after my sister. She stood looking at the car, upside down in a gully, belly to the sky, surrounded by twisted metal and crumbled glass. My father’s door moved slightly, and he wriggled out. “I’ll flag someone down,” he said, his voice rasping.
Karma and I stood in shock. The dream of our gymkhana disappeared. Our eyes found the horse trailer, wedged into a ravine a few yards away. Together we walked over, afraid to peer inside.
Tonka and Comanche lay on the floor, their cheeks flat against the floorboards, legs tucked at their sides. Unlike the car, the interior of the trailer was surprisingly intact. The horses were completely still. Karma and I looked at each other. No words were possible. We knew they were dead.
Suddenly a man appeared. A man younger than our father but perhaps old enough to be the parent of one
of our friends. He wore jeans and a T-shirt. I remember a straw cowboy hat; my sister recalls only his face.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” we answered together, although we knew that nothing was all right.
“Sit here on the grass,” he said, and I sank to the ground. My legs were shaking. Karma sat next to me.
He stooped down to look into the trailer. The horses were motionless. He reached inside and touched first Tonka’s flank, then Comanche’s. Suddenly Comanche’s flank quivered.
The man turned to face us. “They’re going to be OK,” he said. “They’ve just been knocked unconscious.” He talked to them, rubbing their cheeks and gently pulling their ears. “It’s probably what saved them.”
He kicked the trailer door open, and both horses struggled to their feet. He backed them out, one by one. Like us, they were trembling from the shock and the cool rain.
He tied them to the fence at the side of the road and helped us to our feet. “Do you live far?” he asked.
“No,” we said.
“You should walk them home. They probably won’t want to get in a trailer again.”
“OK,” Karma said.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“We’re fine,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “You’ll all be OK.”
Our father was talking to a police officer. He was distraught and in pain and took little notice of us. If the officer knew our father had been drinking, he didn’t do anything about it. We untied our horses from the fence to begin our walk home, nearly a mile.
I looked back; the man was gone.
My sister and I never found out who he was, and we never forgot him. It was as if he had brought our horses back to life, and some of that magic had rubbed off on us too. He gave us strength in the short run to gather our wits, to take our two horses by their halters and lead them home. But the experience also helped sustain us during the days and weeks that followed. Many years would pass before my father could face his demons and our family grew close again. But this calm and caring stranger gave us a sense of hope, optimism, and human connection in a dark and frightening moment. He told us that we would be OK—and in time, we were OK, all of us.