The rain came down in torrents.
The earth turned to mud and slush beneath her horse, making each step more dangerous than the last. Finally, a wind picked up. It turned the lower branches into weapons, whipping at her head.
One lashed her across her back, pushing her forward. Lightning disliked the sudden movement. He tried to run, and slipped; barely maintaining his balance, while he skidded to a stop.
Finally, Cindi dismounted. It wouldn’t be easy to control Lightning without harness or lead. He was as willful as she was, and the weather was not the kind that encouraged obedience. But riding him was far more dangerous.
“C’mon Lightning…” she coaxed him. “You shouldn’t be afraid of your own namesake.”
She led him through the darkness, using her phone to light the way. But the rain soon put an end to that. She cursed under her breath and stuck it in her pocket.
“I don’t think they’ll have any better luck in the woods than we do,” she told him.
She had heard sirens in the distance once or twice. Maybe it was just her paranoia, but she was sure they were looking for her. Her stepmother must have lied. And why not? It was either that or go to prison.
In time, the wind became a faint brush of breeze; and the rain, a mere drizzle. A cold air settled in with such a chill, she almost missed the lashing of the wind. At least it had been warm, then.
Overhead, the clouds parted, and a half moon showed its welcome face. With the way lit again, they continued their trek through the woods. For once, Lightning did not ignore her commands. He seemed to sense that he, too, was in danger. And that only she could lead them both to safety.
“Good boy…” she continued to coax him. She was still five miles away from her grandparents’ property. It was them she had gone to when Richard sent her away, not to San Francisco as he had told her.
Her grandfather had only grudgingly agreed to let her sneak back. She had parked her car a half mile up the road, and walked the rest of the way home. Now, it was too far to go back. Besides, she would not leave Lightning, now.
He was likely the only thing she would ever get from her father’s estate, after the wife had finished snatching up all she could. She tried not to think of her father as she had last seen him – a corpse with open eyes, and a broken head.
Cindi closed her eyes against the image that came unbidden, but that only made it more vivid. She swallowed the rising lump in her throat. It wasn’t time to despair. It was time to find safety, to go home – to survive.
Suddenly, Lightning drew to a halt, and no amount of coaxing could get him to move again. Tears welled up in her eyes.
I won’t leave him, she resolved. For the millionth time that night, she cursed herself for not saddling him before they left. There wasn’t time. She would have killed us both.
“Hello?” a voice called out from the darkness. “Is someone there? Angie? Milo? Is that you? I’m over here!”
Lightning took a step back. “No!” Cindi whispered, but firmly.
As she searched the darkness, her eyes rested on a red piece of fabric, flapping in the wind. It was a tent; and the voice inside, was from the camper. He must have heard the horse. Or maybe he saw their shadows in the trees.
For a second, she thought of turning back, of finding some other way. But she was cold, and hungry. And he was only one camper. She could defend herself. Hadn’t he called out a girl’s name as well? Angie, it was?
After a few slips in the mud, she managed to mount Lightning again. It was easier to control him from his back – easier to escape, if necessary. He walked towards the camp, however reluctant; all the while voicing his complaints.
The camper crawled out from the tent on his hands. Pain darkened his expression as he looked up at her. Inside the tent, his left leg twisted at an awkward angle. His tent had not survived the rain, or the wind; and he looked beaten by his injuries and the weather, alike.
“Who are you? Did you see two others? A girl, about 18 years old? And her brother, Milo?”
“No,” I answered. “Are you hurt?”
He pointed at his horse. “He threw me,” he said. “The thunder. He hates it. No idea why I bothered giving him the name, if he can’t even stand his own namesake.”
Cindi smiled to herself.
“I don’t know anything about camping,” he confessed. “Angie and Milo went looking for phone signal, and didn’t come back. I barely had time to set up before the storm came. They probably got caught in it, too.”
Cindi dismounted from her horse. “Do you have any extra bridle?”
“Yeah – Thunder chews through them sometimes, so I keep extras.” He pointed to an unsorted heap on the ground, near what must have been a fire before the rain came.
In a few minutes, Cindi had Lightning fixed to a tree. She then approached the camper and bent down before him. “Let me see your leg?”
He looked at it, and then looked away. His face twisted in pain again, as though it hurt him more when his eyes bore witness. She was sure it hurt, regardless. It was bleeding and swollen.
He crawled as far out of the tent as he dared, so she could get in. “This is going to hurt,” she told him.
He breathed deeply.
She returned outside for a shirt, and handed it to him. “Bite down on this.”
She then went hunting for a stick, got some more rope, and returned. He beat the ground with his fist and groaned as his bones snapped back into place. And then he passed out.
It was just as well. He would be still enough for her to clean, bandage, and splint the foot.
He would be in pain when he woke, she knew. Finding a flashlight, she headed off into the dark to find the herbs Abuela would have recommended.
By the time he woke up, the tent was dried and properly pitched. She had a fire going, and his foot was just a dull throb.
He stared around wide-eyed for a moment, and then said, “Did you do all this?”
She brought him some bread and smoked ham. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all. Help yourself to anything you like.” He looked at his leg, and then back at her. “How did you know how to do that?”
“My Dad’s a doctor,” she told him. “I’ve watched him do it a thousand times – including to me. I’ve been thrown before. Not from Lightning, though.” She stood, then, and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “Will your friends be able to find you here?”
“No signal.” He pointed to his phone. “But maybe I can find my way back to the cabin in the morning.”
“You’re not a local?”
He shook his head. “Not really. I live an hour north of here.” He looked her up and down for a moment, and then he said, “I never got your name.”
She turned away from him, and returned to the fire.
“Are you in trouble, or something?” she heard him ask. When she didn’t answer, he said, “It’s dark and muddy. If you leave, your horse is like to break a foot. You know that, sure as I do.
“I have a roomy tent. After all you did, it’s the least I can do to help.” When still no response came from her, he added, “I won’t try anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. Pretty sure you’d break a second leg if I did. I can see it in you.”
It wasn’t his advances that worried her. It was the police. The rain had stopped. What if they came looking for her? She should put as much distance between herself and the old ranch.
But she was exhausted. And his company offered a strange but welcome comfort. She was all alone in the world now; truly, an orphan. And this teenage boy was like to be the only company she would have before they shipped her off to prison for a crime she did not commit.
And what of him? How would he get home? There were bears in the woods, and other wild animals that would not resist the scent of blood and fear.
“Just tonight,” she finally answered. “And then I’ll show you how to get home, or at least bring you far enough to get signal.”
Relief washed over him. He didn’t want to spend the night alone, either. “I can sleep outside, if you like.”
She shook her head. “I think you’re a wise boy, who prefers to have at least one leg in working condition, and his face arranged in its current order.”
His face broke into a smile, a handsome smile. It was not a smile of mockery, or disbelief. It was a smile that told her he had received such threats before, maybe often, and knew better than to argue the point or test her. He scooted to the far right side of the tent and continued to eat his ham and bread.
“Thanks for dinner,” he said, “and for everything else. I would have starved out here. A strange feeling, being the damsel in distress.” He chuckled to himself.
She couldn’t help but smile at that, however faint it was. “You’re welcome.”
“You won’t give me your name, but I’ll give you mine,” he said. “I’m Henry.”
For a moment, she thought of replying with her own, but the risk was too great. She took one of the blankets for herself and turned away from him. “Goodnight Henry.”
It was a long and fitful night for Cinderella. More than once she thought she might have cried out in her sleep. But each time, she turned to find Henry still oblivious to the world. He didn’t snore, she noted. Yet he slept soundly; untouched by worry or death or deceit.
In the last hours of darkness, she finally fell into a deep sleep. When she woke, it was to Henry shaking her.
“I hear voices,” he said. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Should we call back for help?”
Cindi listened closely, and heard her name come to her through the trees. “We have to go. We have to leave everything. Can you get on your horse?” She hurried out of the tent, and ran to the horses.
By the time she saddled his horse, he had hopped his way over to her. On the last hop, his foot hit a wet spot in the dirt, and he slid. She caught him, and then helped him as best as she could, into the saddle.
“What’s going on?” he asked her.
She threw a saddle over Lightning. “Do you need anything from camp?”
“My phone,” he answered. He tapped his pockets. “I already have it.”
She untied Lightning from the tree, and trotted up beside him. “Can you ride well?”
His smile this time was nothing short of confident. “As well as you, I’m sure.”
“Good. Try to keep up.”
Much to her pleasant surprise, her hopeless camper made for a capable rider. Even with his broken leg, now no doubt throbbing with pain, he rode like a man born in the saddle.
Neck to neck, he kept pace with her. Thunder’s hoofs roared against the ground as they stomped into the earth beside her. It was no wonder how he had gotten his name. He was bigger than Lightning, and far more muscular.
By the time they reached the edge of the forest, the voices were only a distant memory.
“Do you think you could find your way back to get your things?” she asked him.
“No, but he will.” He patted Thunder.
“You should have phone signal now.”
He checked his phone, and sure enough, he had full service. He looked disappointed to see it. “Is this where you leave?”
“Will you at least tell me who you are?”
“I can’t, Henry. I’m sorry. But thank you for everything.”
That smile returned again, but this time, it was sad. “Thank you for finding me when you did.” After a pause, he added. “I’ll tell them it was only me at the camp. I never saw you.”
“Thank you,” she said again, and then she crossed the street, and disappeared into the woods again.
Henry could hear his mother choking back the tears when he called. A lawyer who worked on some of the most gruesome criminal cases in California, she was not a woman easily overcome by emotion. And yet, he heard it all the same.
In the background, he could hear his father on the phone, talking to the police. “We found him,” he said. “You can call off the search – for him, at least.”
It seemed an awful lot of fuss to make when they knew he planned to spend the next few days in the woods, anyway. This was an early return, prompted by poor weather and a leg twisted out of shape.
In minutes, they appeared. The truck skidded to a stop at the side of the road. His parents poured out, with Angie and Milo behind them.
“Thank God!” his father said when he saw him. He hadn’t set a foot inside a church since the day he got married.
“What happened to your leg?”
“I twisted it,” he said. “It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt.”
“You made a splint?” Angie sounded impressed.
There was a time when her approval would have left him giddy-headed, but it was the girl in the woods who held dominion over his thoughts, now. Long after she had gone, he considered going after her. At long last, it was the fear that he might slow her down that stopped him.
“Henry?” Angie prompted.
“I found a guide in the woods,” he said. “They helped set it right.”
His Dad steadied the stirrups on his good side, and helped him down off the horse. “A guide?” he asked. “Why didn’t he wait with you?”
Henry had already prepared his answers. “There was a search party in the woods. They left to go join them.”
“A search party?” his mother’s eyes seemed to pop out of her head. “You were near the search party? I hope it wasn’t the one looking for that girl. We asked them to send one to find you.”
“What girl?” he said, nonchalantly; hoping his face did not betray him – did not betray his “guide”.
“Oh, you wouldn’t have heard,” Milo explained. “That’s how come we left. Rangers told us to leave the trails. We weren’t allowed back on. We told them you were there, and we needed to find you, but they wouldn’t let us go back.”
“Why not?” he asked.
Angie flipped out her phone. “There was a murderer at a ranch… maybe 5 miles back. Kinda hard to believe, really. She’s our age.” When his father had helped him into the front seat, she handed him the phone. “There she is.”
Henry’s breath caught in his throat for a moment, as the stunning blue eyes of his “guide” looked back at him. At least he knew her name now: Cinderella Bell.
To be Continued
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 1
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 2
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 4
By special request from Anne J, for her Invitation: write your own “Cinderella” story! writing prompt. If you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to give it a go. I had lots of fun working on this one.