This story won the 2017 award, which means you can read the full story (not just an excerpt) on the 'Winner' page.
His daughter’s first horse came from a travelling carnival where children rode him in miserable clockwise circles. He was swaybacked with a patchy coat and split hooves, but Tammy fell for him on the spot and Atlee made a cash deal with the carnie. A lifetime ago, just outside Robstown, Texas. Atlee managed the stables west of town; Laurel, his wife, taught lessons there. He hadn’t brought the trailer—buying a pony hadn’t been on his plate that day—so he drove home slowly, holding the reins through the window, the horse trotting beside the truck. Tammy sat on his back singing made up songs about cowgirls. She named him Buttons. No telling how long he’d been ridden in circles at the carnival. For the rest of his life, Buttons never once turned left.
A year later, days after Hurricane Celia hit and everyone was digging through soggy debris for ruined photo albums and missing jewelry, an old woman from Corpus called Atlee about a chestnut mare. It wasn’t hers. She’d found the horse standing in her fenced backyard, soaked to the bone and spooked. “I think the storm dropped her here,” she said. He drove out and threw a rope not around the mare’s neck but her hoof, then coaxed her into the trailer with quiet talk and sugar beet. He ran an ad in the paper, hung signs in the feed stores, called every rancher he knew. He named her Celia and she turned out to be as fine a horse as he’d ever seen, smart and sure-footed. No one ever claimed the old girl. Not something he’d been able to parse.
The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen were the wild horses in Arizona. He’d gone to deliver Celia to a couple in Phoenix; they needed a companion horse for an old blue roan that was cribbing and stall-walking. Atlee was going to miss her and that must have been evident because after supper, a ranch hand said he knew something that would cheer him up and they drove out to the Salt River. No one knew how long the herds would survive. The state considered them stray livestock and staged round-ups without notice or due process. But Atlee saw a hundred horses that first evening. He glassed the mesa with the ranch hand’s binoculars and found the animals in the orange dust. They pawed the ground and threw their heads. They clacked their teeth and nipped each other, bucked and gave playful chase. Wind lifted their manes and tails. They bit at each other’s knees and reared up and sniffed the air. When one of the stallions caught a scent, maybe of Atlee himself or the truck or the ranch hand’s cigar, they broke into a run like nothing he’d ever witnessed. The herd spread and gathered, spread and gathered, one tremulous and far-ranging body, until they came together in a gorgeous line, a meridian dividing before and after.