Pepito turned and looked back at the rancho. His eyes were filled with tears. All his worldly belongings were inside the small burlap sack slung over his shoulder. How hard it was to leave the only home he had ever known and the horses he had loved and tended.
It was really his love of horses that had cost Pepito his job and home. To break a stallion’s spirit, Garcia, a cruel groom, had tied him in his stall and left him without food and water. When Pepito had smuggled food and water to the horse, he had been caught and fired without being allowed to explain what had happened.
An orphan, Pepito had no choice but to walk along the hot, dusty road toward the nearest town, a good day’s ride away. To find a stable master there who was in need of a good groom was his only hope.
Pepito trudged on, not stopping until midafternoon to take even a sip of water from his goatskin bag or to eat even one of the corn tortillas the kindly cook had given him. Wearily he sat in the shelter of a large boulder. His head began to nod.
Pepito awoke to the cool night air blowing across his face—and had he just dreamed that he’d heard slow, heavy steps? Suddenly he heard the low but unmistakable whinny of a horse! He scrambled atop the boulder and peered through the darkness. There! Something was moving through the brush not far away.
Pepito’s heart beat wildly. His one dream had always been to have a horse of his own. If he could catch this horse, he could ride it into town. And if it had no owner, he could claim it!
Pepito moved carefully through the brush. He had no rope and could only hope to take the animal by surprise. Closer he crept, and in the pale moonlight he finally saw it. Pepito gasped. She was the most beautiful mare he had ever seen! Her features were small and dainty, and she looked fleet of hoof. Her color was of the palest gold, and her mane and tail were as white as flax.
Pepito stood motionless and stared. The mare turned and regarded him with soft, liquid eyes. She showed no fear, and Pepito’s heart went out to her. Such a horse must surely belong to a princess, he thought. She must be lost in this wild country. He could see now that her coat was caked with mud and brambles. There were sunken places around her eyes. And she was heavy with foal.
Pepito knew that the mare needed food and water badly. She could not hope to give birth and survive alone in such rough country. He would have to help her! He quickly ran back and got his sack, poured water from his water bag into his sombrero, and, holding it before him, walked slowly toward the horse.
The mare sniffed the air. Her ears pricked, and without hesitation she came to Pepito and began drinking the water from his hat. When the water was gone, Pepito rolled up his few remaining tortillas and fed them to her one by one until they were gone. The mare’s eyes were filled with trust and gratitude. She nuzzled Pepito’s hand, and both of them knew that each had found a friend. Princesa, I will call you, Pepito decided. My Princesa.
Pepito knew that the mare’s time was very near. He worked quickly to clear a soft, sheltered place for her to rest. The mare seemed to understand his intent, for when he was done, she lay down at once.
Pepito kept watch nearby, afraid that some enemy would find her—a snake, or perhaps a scorpion. He drank the last of his water and ate a few nuts. Tomorrow he would have to find food and water for them both somewhere among the sagebrush and mesquite.
Pepito awakened with a start. The warm morning sun was in his face. He leapt to his feet! He had not meant to sleep. Had it all been a dream? But no, there lay Princesa; and nuzzling by her side was a tiny reddish colt! Pepito studied the foal. He was as finely built as his mother, built to run with the wind. Vientito, I will call you, he decided. Little Wind.
Pepito set off immediately to find water for the mare. If the colt was to survive, its mother must have strength to feed him. The boy scrambled down into a deep arroyo and began to dig with all his might. His face and clothing were soon caked with dirt and sweat, but finally his effort was rewarded. The sand grew moist, moister, till at last a small pool formed.
Pepito filled his sombrero again and again and carried it to the mare. Only when her thirst was slaked did he stop to rest and to drink. Then he went out once more to gather all the coarse grass he could find. It was not corn or oats, but it was the best that he could do. No matter where he looked, he could find no food for himself. He had only a handful of nuts left to sustain him until the mare and her foal were well enough to travel.
By afternoon Pepito was exhausted. He lay in the shade of the boulder, feeling weak and dizzy. The mare was stronger now, and she struggled to her feet and nickered encouragingly to her colt. The foal struggled and fell, struggled and fell, till finally his spindly legs supported him, and he wobbled to his mother and began to nurse. Pepito’s heart sang. Soon they would ride with the wind, the colt galloping after them!
Two days passed, and the bond between them grew, but the mare again weakened. Her ribs showed, and her coat was lusterless. Pepito soothed and groomed her the best that he could, but he began to despair. There was so little grass left, the water hole was beginning to dry, his nuts were gone, and vultures could be seen circling above them.
Pepito had no strength left; his skin was parched, and he could barely walk. He fell to the sand, dimly aware of a sound like distant thunder. Horses! He struggled to his feet and stumbled toward the road. He must get help! If there were horsemen, too, they would probably realize Princesa’s value and take her from him, but it was better than watching her die!
He reached the road and waved his sombrero wildly. As the riders slowed and came to a stop, Pepito collapsed in the dirt in front of them.
Pepito opened his eyes. He was lying in a bed, in a huge room with white walls! Standing at the foot of the bed was a handsome young man and the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her hair was the color of the mare’s, her eyes as soft and brown, and her features as finely chiseled.
The girl smiled at him. “We found you; and we found my Estrellita (Little Star) and her foal. I can never thank you enough for saving her,” the girl said. “We saw how you had cared for them. They are well. Come and see!” She took his hand and helped him to the window.
Pepito gasped. Here was a rancho bigger than any he had seen. A small river ran through green pastures, and trees dotted the hills. Cattle and horses were everywhere, and a huge stable crowned the highest hill. There in a paddock near the house was Princesa, well groomed and contented; by her side was the frisky foal.
Happy-sad tears stung Pepito’s eyes. The mare was safe at home, which made him happy, but she had no further need of him, which made him sad. But what was the girl saying?
“… and she will still need great care and a good groom—one for whom she has affection.”
Pepito turned and stared at her, hope making his heart beat quickly.
“Devotion and courage such as you have shown are rare indeed,” she continued softly. “Will you stay and be my Estrellita’s groom and train her foal for me? It would please me greatly.”
Speechless, Pepito clasped her hands and nodded ecstatically. He could stay with his Princesa—no, Estrellita! He would train Vientito! And he had found a home!