The Wild Path


By Sarah R. Baughman

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The Line Tender meets The Secret Horses of Briar Hill in this hopeful, heartfelt story about one girl's search for legendary horses and her quest to piece her family back together.

Twelve-year-old Claire Barton doesn't like the "flutter feeling" that fills her chest when she worries about the future, but she knows what she loves: the land that's been in her family for three generations; her best friend Maya; her family's horses, Sunny and Sam; and her older brother Andy. That's why, with Andy recently sent to rehab and her parents planning to sell the horses, Claire's world feels like it might flutter to pieces.

When Claire learns about equine therapy, she imagines a less lonely future that keeps her family together, brother and horses included. But, when she finds what seem to be mysterious wild horses in the woods behind her house, she realizes she has a bitmore company than she bargained for. With this new secret—and a little bit of luck—Claire will discover the beauty of change, the power of family, and the strength within herself.



Walking to our mailbox always feels longer than walking back. I take the same path both ways, past fields and fence line, but steps can’t measure how fast I want to get there. It’s the wanting, not the distance, that matters.

Everything around me is set to change. The maples covering the mountains started to pop, little bursts of red, yellow, and orange poking through green. I saw my breath this morning, a puff of smoke. The wind smells almost like snow. And when I wrap my sweatshirt tight, the envelope pressed to my chest crinkles like dry leaves.

Dear Andy,

Guess what?

That’s how my letters always start. They’re not like texts, where you get right to the point. There’s more waiting. Not only in the time it takes to stretch whole sentences across a blank page, but in the trip that page takes from my desk to our mailbox and all the way to the Starshine Center in New Hampshire, where Andy can pick up a pen and write back.

I can’t text him anyway, even though Mom and Dad got me a phone for my birthday this month, one of those simple ones with no apps at all, only their numbers and my best friend Maya Gonzalez’s already programmed in. Andy doesn’t have a number anymore. His cell phone’s just one thing they took away, and they won’t give it back until he’s done with what they want him to do, until he figures out how to get better. “Getting better” is probably like walking to the mailbox—wanting to reach somewhere so bad but no matter how hard you try, you feel like you’re wading through fallen leaves.

Still, I like Andy the way he is—how he wears his baseball cap crooked and sets up a tent in two minutes flat and pretends to steal my nose with his finger and thumb even though I’m twelve and he just turned eighteen. Will he still do those things once the Starshine Center has made him new?

Mom thinks Andy’s homesick, even though he never says it. “He misses things we take for granted,” she tells me, knotting her fingers together, her eyebrows pinching into that space above her nose that’s always wrinkled now. “Tell him about those things.” So I write: Sunny sneezed while I was brushing her face so now I have horsehair AND snot all over my shirt.

I write what I know will make him smile. Because even though he wasn’t doing much of it by the time he left, Andy loves smiling.

Proof: His letters back always start with a joke.


He hides the answer, written upside down at the end, to keep me reading. It’s not like he has to—I already hold each of his words in my head as carefully as I hold Dad’s homemade anise candies on my tongue, trying to make them last.



It’s bright today, and a little cold; stalks of corn shiver and shine like the sea. But the air feels good too, so I tip my head back and squint into the blue. I was born on a morning like this. That’s how I got my name: Claire. In French, it means “bright and clear.” “That’s what you were from the beginning,” my parents always say. “You still are.”

They don’t see how my insides flutter when I think about Andy, or school, or how to keep Sunny and Sam safe in our barn instead of sending them to a new one.

They don’t see the birds in there.

Sparrows that soar over our barn can actually fly to the tops of clouds, then plunge back to earth. And that’s exactly what my flutter feeling is like: It sweeps in from a place beyond me and gets under my skin, shaky as wings.

I don’t know exactly where my sparrows go when they leave. But they visit more and more now that Andy’s gone.

By the time I get to the mailbox, my hair’s tangled under my chin. I brush it back, pull the metal door until it squeaks open, slip the letter in. Next comes my favorite part. It was Andy’s favorite too. He was the one who explained we had to tip the red flag up with our fingers so that Mr. Meyer, who’s been driving mail around our back roads since Mom was my age, knew he needed to stop and take what we’d left inside.

Dad says we used to fight over who got to put up the flag, but by the time my memory kicks in, Andy was already letting me do it every time, lifting me at the waist so I could reach as high as I needed.

I raise myself a little on my toes now, even though I don’t need to anymore, and push the flag up myself.

Dear Andy, I wrote this time.

Guess what? I miss you.


Back from the barn already?” Dad’s frying eggs and potatoes at the stove. He doesn’t need to turn around to know I’m on the front porch, stamping driveway dirt from my boots.

“Just mailed a letter. Came back for my hat.” I grab it out of the basket by the door and tuck it over my ears.

In the living room, Mom pushes her chair back from the desk. She’s spent a lot of time there lately, staring at the computer, looking for jobs. But now she bends her head around the doorway to the kitchen and wags her finger at me. “Told you it was cold.”

I hold up my hands. “You might have been right. This time.”

Mom laughs, then wraps her hands around the mug of coffee Dad offers. She sighs, and the wrinkles that scrunch up her forehead go soft and smooth. “Just what I needed,” she says. Dad kisses her on the cheek.

“Ugh.” I push the door halfway open. “See you guys later.”

“We know not to wait.” Dad stretches a set of metal tongs toward me, and I grab the strip of bacon hanging from them before heading back outside. Saturday breakfasts are always the best because Dad uses cooking as a way to procrastinate before settling into his living room chair with stacks of history essays to grade. He says food always turns out just the way he expects it to, unlike most other things in life.

Still, I’d rather keep my plate warm in the oven and take my time with morning chores. I can’t ever squeeze enough minutes out of school days to groom Sunny and Sam with the currycomb plus both the hard and soft brushes, or to smear baby oil over the burrs tangled in their tails. But on weekends, time widens somehow.

Now I want to stretch it even further. Ever since Mom lost her accounting job when Kroller’s Auto closed last spring, she and Dad have been worried. He teaches, and does tutoring in the summer, but it doesn’t feel like enough. They both say it doesn’t make much sense to keep horses anymore.

Dad says he’s sorry. Mom says it will hurt her too. But they still hope to sell before winter comes, so they must not see how Sunny and Sam hold my skin and bones together, all in one piece. They don’t see my heart quiet and calm when I’m braiding manes and picking hooves and squeezing my heels against soft flanks, pushing to go faster, cold wind in my hair.

There’s always warmth in the barn. I slip into the hush of it and let my eyes adjust to the gray light of the big, airy entry that holds our hay wagon and tractor. From behind the latched door leading to the separate area we call the “horse stable,” lined with stalls and a tack room, I hear Sunny and Sam shifting on their bedding, pushing wood shavings into piles with their big hooves.

When I walk past their stalls, they swing around to face me and hang their heads over the doors. I twist the strands of their chestnut forelocks in my hands and bring both my curved palms to their noses. Their whiskers tickle my skin.

Sam’s a little bigger than Sunny, and a little sweeter too. When I move into his stall to get his feed bucket off its hook, he sways to the side, ears flopping, eyes half shut. Sunny has more opinions. She nods her big head up and down and noses my palm.

“Don’t be rude,” I say. I push my shoulder against hers until she scoots and I can pull her bucket out too.

The fact is, I love them both.

Today I’m riding Sam. A few days ago I worked Sunny on the lunge line, guiding her in circles, making her trot and canter. If I don’t give her enough practice out of the saddle she gets prickly, shy. Holding a horse’s attention while you’re standing on the ground makes riding sessions work better.

But it’s easy to get lazy and skip lunging Sam. No matter how many too-busy weekdays keep us away from our trails in the woods, Sam stays calm. If anything, he needs an extra nudge to get past a walk. When Maya comes to visit, she likes to ride him. She can’t have a horse at her house in town, but she says being friends with me is close enough.

“Sam’s more my style,” she told me last time. “I bet he even likes to sleep in, just like I do.” Then she leaned back, closed her eyes, and fumbled around for an imaginary snooze button. Maya always knows how to make me laugh.

I shake dust from a thick woven saddle pad, then bring out the saddle and bridle. Each piece has a name: horn, cantle, stirrup, cinch, headpiece, broadband, throatlatch, bit. Leather locks with metal and fits just right.

Sam follows me out of his stall, his nose at my elbow. Once I fasten cross-ties on either side of his halter I brush his thickening coat. I’m hurrying, filled with a tremor that’s nothing like the sparrows. Instead of feeling like I’m going to break apart, I’m putting myself back together.

I work my fist between the saddle pad and the bony ridge of Sam’s withers like Andy showed me, making a space where nothing pinches. Then I hook the right stirrup over the horn, swing the saddle up and set it gently down, pull the cinch swinging under Sam’s belly, then tighten it. Next the bridle: bit slipping between teeth, reins gathered in my hands.

And then we’re ready, gone, out into sunshine made more blinding by the barn’s dimness. I blink slashes of light away and lead Sam down the path to our arena. It only has two walls front and back, with open-air sides, but the roof keeps too much rain and snow from getting in. We have a tiny circle I can ride in by myself well into the winter if I can’t convince anyone else to trail ride, since I’m not allowed to do that alone. It’s better than nothing. Every time I start moving Sam around the arena, I can see the hoofprints we left from last time leading the way.

“Ready, Sam?” I tighten the cinch one more time, then latch my left foot into the stirrup and swing my right over his back. Settle in. Here we go.

From the saddle, I see so much: the middles of mountains, the mailbox a little speck in the distance, its red flag the size of a pinprick. Everything on the ground looks smaller, matters less. My shoulders roll back, my muscles shift. Inside, I’m warm and strong.

Heels down, reins clutched in my gloves, eyes pointed straight ahead to where I’m going, I can do anything.

When I lead Sam back into the barn, I see Mom there, brushing Sunny. She’s been coming to the barn during my chore time more often lately.

“Hey, you,” she says. “Thought we could exercise both horses together, head out into the woods a bit. That way you can eat breakfast sooner.”

Mom knows I can wait for breakfast. She’s here for the same reason I am: because the barn’s dark enough to make dirt look pretty, quiet enough for a crowded brain to think, softer to look at than a glowing screen. Because problems sink through the grooves in these wood-plank walls and get swallowed whole.

My heart swells a little. Maybe riding Sunny and Sam will remind Mom that they need to stay here.

Mom must see the hope rise into my cheeks, all rosy and warm, because she’s gentle when she says, “We talked about this, Claire. We need to take care of Sunny and Sam as long as we still have them, and that includes exercise.”

I feel the sparrows race in then, pecking my swelled-up heart. They tickle my throat, making it hard to talk. I’m losing everything that matters, a voice inside me whispers. And I’ll never get it back.

Sunny and Sam aren’t supposed to belong to anyone else. They’re ours. And I don’t care if Mom says I can still ride her friend Marcy’s horse anytime. It’s not the same.

“I already rode Sam,” I mumble. “In the arena.”

“It can’t have been for very long, though,” Mom says. “A little more won’t hurt. And Dad’s got so much grading to do. I’ll never be able to drag him out here. You’ll come, right?”

I always want to go into the woods. This is the best time of the year for it, the bugs finally gone and the damp smell of fresh leaves turning all around, mixing with the spice of cedar and pine. When crisp air fills my lungs, it stills the sparrows too. I smile just thinking about it, and Mom sees.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She rubs Sunny’s neck and unclips the cross-ties. “This girl’s all set. Ready to go?”

Mom leads Sunny toward the door, and I turn Sam around to follow.

“When do you think Andy will be home?” I whisper against his neck. “Not too long, huh?”

It seems like he’s been gone forever, but Mom marks the days with Xs on the feed-company calendar she tacked on the barn wall, so I know it’s really only been a month. August 27. That day, I followed Andy out of the car and up the steps of the Starshine Center, my tongue a block of ice refusing to melt in all that summer heat, keeping words too far down to speak while everything inside—my throat and ribs and flip-flopping stomach—screamed at him not to go. I knew why he was there. We had already sat down as a family the week before and I’d listened to Mom and Dad explain. Andy’s voice cracked as he told me himself that there was such a thing as too much medicine, that he needed help to stop taking the pain pills a doctor had prescribed after he hurt his back snowmobiling. He’d taken too many, for too long. I understood what the therapists told us, that Andy has a problem he’ll need to work on, that it’s called addiction. I remembered how empty Andy’s eyes had started to look, how he’d been staying out later and later at night and sometimes didn’t come home at all. But I also knew that wasn’t the real Andy. It couldn’t be. When we camped on Pebble Mountain, he brought graham crackers and marshmallows and bars of chocolate. He lit fires without matches and whittled sticks to sharp points. He didn’t need pills.

Sam looks at me from sleepy eyes, his ears flopping every which way. He’s relaxed. I cup my hands under his nose, and he breathes into them, his whiskers tickling my palms.

He doesn’t have any answers for me.

But with horses, and questions, you have to be patient.


As I’m leading Sam toward the arena, my phone buzzes with a text. I stop, squint at the screen.

Whatcha up to?

It’s Maya. When I’m talking to her, or even just listening, the same peaceful feeling I get in the barn works its way in and holds on. I slow down. The sparrows flit away. Now my breath fogs the tiny screen as I type back.

Trail ride w/ mom.

It won’t be what Maya wants to hear. On weekends when she and I can get someone to drive us over to the other’s house, we hang out. Not today, though. Dad won’t want to leave his “grading chair” until every last essay’s marked, which won’t happen until dinner’s gone cold, and Mom already said she needed to ramp up her job search over the weekend.

You didn’t invite me?!

Sorry! We only have 2 horses lol

Maya and I have known each other for a long time. Our moms are friends, and when we were little they used to let us both sit on Sam while they led us around the ring, over and over again.

Even back then, we were already pretty different. Not in the deep-down ways that actually make friendships stick. It’s just that Maya used to toddle up to any kid on the playground and start babbling while I hung back, digging into the sand under the slide and narrowing my eyes at anyone who came close.

I’m glad we’re not the same. It’s kind of like Mom says: We complement each other. “You remind me of companion plants in a garden,” she explained once. “Lettuce and tomatoes. Radishes and carrots. Different enough that when you’re close together, you help each other out. Give each other space to grow.”

Now, from the edge of the arena, Sam and I watch Mom work on the lunge line with Sunny, stepping in toward her flank and spinning the rope to make her change directions. Mom’s been working with horses since she was my age, and she started teaching Andy about them as soon as he could walk. As he got older and Mom got busier with work, Andy started teaching me. But even though I’ve had a lot of practice, I can always learn something from watching Mom. Today it’s how quickly she lets the rope slide through her hands to make Sunny turn. Her brain’s always running a few steps ahead of Sunny’s hooves.

Mom begins shortening the rope, letting Sunny slow and stop, then spin to face her.

“She looks tired,” I say.

Mom laughs. “That was barely anything.” She rubs Sunny’s nose and leads her out of the arena, toward me and Sam. “It’s just her mind working. That pretty much tires anyone out.”

I settle into the saddle while Mom unclips the lunge line.

“So you sent another letter to your brother this morning?” Mom’s looking very carefully at Sunny’s bridle instead of at me now, pretending to adjust the straps even though Sunny’s the only one who ever wears it.

“Yeah.” She knows I went out to the mailbox already, and what else would I have been doing? What she really wants to know is what I wrote in the letter. Or what I think he’ll write back. But I don’t want to tell her—the letters are only for Andy and me.

Mom really loves the Starshine Center. The whole drive back from dropping Andy off, she kept saying, “Didn’t that place have such a nice feel?” and “I know it’ll be great for him.” I pressed my forehead against the window and closed my eyes to erase the sounds. Dad just nodded, his fingers tight on the steering wheel. It started raining as we drove and he had to turn the windshield wipers on high to scatter fat drops like tears. Once I heard him say, “It’s a shot, anyway. Let’s hope he takes it,” but that was all.

“I’m sure he loves getting your letters.” Mom takes Sunny’s reins in her palms and turns to face me. She wants me to keep writing, to help Andy “get better.” But I think what he needs most is to come home.

All the hope in Mom’s voice brings the sparrows sweeping down, their wings rustling over my ribs. I turn Sam toward the woods, let the sun blind me again.

We’re lucky to live right past Pebble Mountain, with paths cutting straight through eighty acres of mixed forest. Mom likes to remind me that these trees have been stretching up to the sky since before her mom was my age. She says trees show people how long it takes a thing to grow, and how long it can last. She doesn’t talk as much about how quickly it can get taken away.

“Perfect weather,” Mom says, changing the subject as she swings onto Sunny’s back. “Cold, but not too cold. Sun’s shining. Couldn’t ask for a better day to get out there, right?”

Mom goes in front even though Sunny has her ears pricked forward so far I can see the veins in them popping out. She’s not like Sam, who couldn’t care less where he goes or who he’s with. Sunny doesn’t want to be alone, and even when she’s with another horse, she has a hard time leading. Some horses are just like that: nervous about being in charge. It’s hard to cure them of it. The idea, though, is to keep practicing so Sunny gets a little more independent on the trail.

Beyond the pasture, we turn toward the stand of pines that brings us into the woods. Green rises all around, mixed with the turning maples, and I take deep breaths of sweet air. Sam moves slowly, each step calm and measured. In the spaces between trees, I see indentations in the dirt: hollows that look a lot like hoofprints. I lean a little closer, then shake my head. It can’t be what it looks like. These woods belong to us—the closest neighbors with animals live miles away. And when we ride here, we don’t weave around the trees. Deer must have come through—big ones, with tracks that widened over time.

“Sunny’s doing good,” Mom says over her shoulder. And I can see that even though Sunny’s ears are still pricked forward, her head’s down just a bit; she’s not looking frantically around for something to run away from.

“Sam’s trying to keep up,” I call. That makes Mom laugh.

We don’t talk about how Andy isn’t here. How if he had been, he would have been riding Sunny instead. He’d have strapped a small thermos to the saddle horn so he could let me sneak tastes of his “mountain coffee” blazing hot and sweet with cream and extra maple syrup. I can almost hear Andy laughing at one of his own corny jokes, the sound bouncing off tree bark. Why did the pine tree get in trouble? Because it was being knotty!

Andy’s laughter always sounded extra-loud because of how much quieter the woods get in fall. Sometimes a branch cracks. Other times a wood thrush calls. If you’re walking, you can hear your boots rustle in dry leaves or squish in mud. When snow finally comes, always by the beginning of November but usually earlier, it has a swelling silence that goes over everything.

The trail starts to widen, and Mom motions me up next to her. I have to squeeze with my legs and dig my heels a little bit into Sam’s side to convince him that matching Sunny’s pace is a good idea. But Sam always listens, even when he doesn’t want to.

“Listen, Claire,” Mom says quietly, looking down at her reins. “I know this isn’t an easy subject, but… I think we need to discuss it again. I can tell you’ve been having a hard time accepting what needs to happen.”

She doesn’t have to actually say the words about selling Sunny and Sam for me to know what she means.

“I still don’t get it.” I shake my head. “How hard is it to keep them?”

“Honey,” Mom says. “I know I’ve already explained the costs involved in owning horses. Not just the food and tack and supplies, but vet and farrier bills too.”

When there’s no right thing to say, sometimes it’s better to stay quiet, and I do.

Mom keeps going. “Plus, the barn needs repairs. Pretty big ones. And horses don’t make money; they take it. Especially with Andy at Starshine—”

She stops then, but my mind fills in the rest. I know the Starshine Center isn’t cheap. I’ve listened to Mom and Dad talk in low voices about loans and interest and bills. But if Andy comes home soon, like I know he will, it won’t be an issue anymore.

“You’re always telling me that nothing’s permanent,” I say, thinking of the calendar tacked on the barn wall. “So neither is Starshine. Andy won’t be there forever.”

“But losing my job is the other big piece of this,” Mom says. “Andy can’t fix that. We’ll be paying for Starshine even after he comes home, and we can’t guarantee when he’ll leave either.”

“You said before the snow comes.” I can feel my voice growing wild, spinning away at a canter.

“Hopefully.” Mom’s voice wavers a little. “But I shouldn’t have promised. It’s hard to say for sure. It depends on… many factors.”

I push her uncertainty away. “Well, when he does come home, things should be just like he remembers them,” I say. “That way, he can go back to normal.”

Mom sighs and pulls Sunny to a stop. “This is one change he’ll just have to manage.”

At Starshine, they say consistency is everything. When we first brought Andy there, one of the therapists explained that when people are working to overcome addiction, regular routines are important. She talked about how Andy would need to develop “coping strategies” he could use when he got back home, like managing stress and avoiding risky situations. But how will Andy cope with anything if Sunny and Sam aren’t here?

“This isn’t easy for me either, Claire,” Mom continues. Her voice sounds like it’s slipped underwater. “You know I grew up with horses. I wouldn’t do this if I—” She shakes her head then and sets Sunny back in motion. I follow.

That’s why you should understand, I think. And why you shouldn’t make all these changes that are too big and strange.

But the words stick in my throat, making the sparrows flock and flutter. I close my eyes quickly, then look past Mom, into the trees.

That’s when I spot it.

Just a wisp at first. The curl of a black tail, vanishing in clustered leaves as soon as my eyes grab on to what they’re seeing. Then a hoof, pawing the ground. But when I look up to find the rest of the leg, and the body, it’s gone, the impression it left already filling back in.

Sam’s ears are pricked so far forward I can see the veins crisscrossing up from base to pointed tip. Ahead of me, Sunny’s nodding her head up and down, twisting her reins and sidestepping.

A sheaf of mane, rippling like a wave.

A dappled gray back, running straight across, then rounding and curving down.

It doesn’t make sense. My mind can’t trust my eyes. Still, I know there’s something moving between the trees.

A horse.

It can’t be a horse. The only horses in these woods are Sunny and Sam, and that’s only when we’re guiding them through.

Mom’s looking down at Sunny’s withers instead of into the space between the trees where the tail and hoof slipped through.


  • Praise for The Wild Path:

"A gorgeous, colorful fall setting, a mystery surrounding wild horses roaming the woods, and a sensitive representation of a family contending with addiction all add up to make this not only a magical story, but an important one."—Dusti Bowling, bestselling author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and The Canyon's Edge
  • Praise for The Light in the Lake:

  • * "Baughman convincingly portrays the varied reactions to the findings as well as everybody's desire for the lake to thrive.... Compassionately told, this compelling debut brings to life conservation issues and choices young readers will confront as adults."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "In Baughman's skillful handling, Addie's memories of her brother and her first-person voice are both heartbreaking and hopeful. The novel offers a gentle, introspective exploration of grief and the wonder and fragility of nature, creating a beautiful and dynamic world in which the scientific method and magic coexist."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "The Light in the Lake is a moving novel that skillfully balances magic and science, and loss and hope. Sarah Baughman has created a brave, smart protagonist readers are sure to connect with and root for in her compelling debut."—Supriya Kelkar, award-winning author of Ahimsa and American as Paneer Pie
  • "Haunting, memorable and full of mystery, The Light in the Lake is a brilliant combination of beautiful, lyrical prose and a compelling, exciting story. Baughman has created complex characters with real, deep emotions and a picturesque setting that will make readers feel as if they are at Maple Lake with Addie."—BookPage
  • "Told in prose as luminous as the mysterious creature Addie searches for, The Light in the Lake shines with heart, hope, and just a touch of magic."—Cindy Baldwin, author of Where the Watermelons Grow
  • "A complex take on science, magic, grief, and family for fans of thoughtful realistic fiction in the vein of Kathi Appelt's, Erin Entrada Kelly's, and Ali Benjamin's novels."—School Library Journal
  • "The Light in the Lake radiates with heart and hope. As Addie's tender memories of her brother intertwine with the magic she uncovers in her town's beloved lake, we're led on a moving exploration of science, grief, and self-discovery. A poignant, lyrical story that tugs at the heartstrings."—Mae Respicio, award-winning author of The House That Lou Built
  • "Baughman paints with authenticity the grief of Addie.... Addie's unabashed love for science makes her a pleasingly STEM-focused heroine, and her quest to solve Amos' questions about the lake is interesting and admirable."—BCCB
  • "Drawing on the wonder of science and the power of magic, Baughman has crafted a story that plunges readers into the deep places of the heart. In The Light in the Lake she reminds us that not even the depths of loss can prevent the rise of light and discovery. A poignant story, filled to the brim with hope."—Beth Hautala, author of Waiting for Unicorns and The Ostrich and Other Lost Things
  • On Sale
    Oct 26, 2021
    Page Count
    352 pages