SAVING BULLET - a vocabulary development story for struggling readers

When Kristen walked out to the barn, she knew immediately that something was wrong with Bullet, her nineteen-year-old quarter horse. Instead of greeting her with his usual guttural whinny, he stood silently in his stall with his head hanging down. The straw bedding in his stall was as pristine as it had been two days prior when Kristen had raked it into place. The grain from last night’s meal sat untouched in Bullet’s feed bucket. Kristen pulled a carrot treat from her pocket and offered it to her horse, but he ignored her gesture. It was a clear indication that something was wrong.

For a moment, Kristen lost herself in a reverie, remembering the day her mother had bought Bullet for her. He was an exquisite animal, far more beautiful than the tired, old trail horses she had occasionally rented at a local riding stable. His august, sculpted head showed the Arabian bloodlines that were in his family tree. His alert eyes and upright ears gave him an intelligent countenance. His sorrel coat gleamed in the sunshine, and his long tail and mane fluttered in the wind whenever he cantered across the field.

He had been her savior from school, where she struggled each day to keep up with the other students. He had also been her savior from the bullies who tormented her each day on the playground, making faces at her and calling her names. Back then, in fifth grade, whenever she jumped on her horse’s back and cantered across green fields, bullies and bad grades were effaced from her mind. She was free. She was powerful. She was happy.

Now she was morose. In the last month the vet had made three emergency visits to treat Bullet for colic, the horse-version of dyspepsia. It is a dangerous affliction. If not treated quickly, horses often lay down writhing from the pain in their bellies until their intestines become twisted. The thought of it made Kristen wince, for she knew that a horse’s death would be imminent once it began rolling in pain. She wondered if Bullet’s stomach pains were being caused by some horse equine contagion or a cancerous tumor strangling his intestines. The only way to know for sure would be to send her horse for tests.

That evening Kristen gathered all her powers of persuasion and begged her parents for help. “Mom! Dad! Bullet has to go to the hospital. He’ll die if he doesn’t!”

“Kristen, that could cost thousands of dollars and he’s nineteen-years-old already!” her mother argued.

“It’s out of the question. It’s time for you to grow up. You need to save money for your future. You’ll need a new car soon. Someday you’ll want to buy a house. You can’t afford a horse anymore.” It was clear from the expression on Kristen’s father’s face that he was not going to change his mind.

Kristen turned to her mother, who had always been more willing to discuss an issue when there was a disagreement. “Mom! Please! Horses can live to be thirty or forty. This might be a minor problem that can be cured. I’ll get another job.”

Kirsten waited for a response from her mother, but none came. Her mother’s face showed no signs of compassion. There had to be a way to break through her cold heart. Suddenly, Kirsten had an idea. She asked her mom a thought-provoking question. “Wouldn’t you want me to do the same thing for you someday when you get old?”

Slowly, the woman’s eyes softened and the corners of her lips curled upward. “Very well,” she said reluctantly. “If you can get Bullet into a trailer without hurting anyone, you can take him to Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in Ringoes.

Kristen felt a surge of adrenaline rush through her. Previous attempts to load the horse into a trailer had always ended unsuccessfully. Bullet hated trailers, and the horse was sagacious. Whenever anyone led him toward a trailer, he would turn his body sideways making it impossible to push or pull him inside. The process became a battle of wills. The harder the handlers tried, the more Bullet would resist until eventually he would rear up, hurling his twelve-hundred-pound body high into the air. Kristen knew that, for Bullet's sake, she would have to try one more time. She hoped with all her heart that this time Bullet would be too sick and weak to fight. Kristen called the medical center and fortunately was able to schedule an emergency visit for the following morning.

At 8:00 A.M. when the truck and horse trailer pulled up to the barn, Bullet lifted his head and pawed nervously at the ground. Kristen warned the handler about Bullet’s hatred of trailers, but the man insisted there would be no problem.

He grabbed Bullet’s lead and began walking the horse toward the trailer. Bullet walked calmly, but when his hooves touched the trailer’s walk-up ramp he reared and pulled back.
The handler hung on, digging his heels into the ground and yanking back hard on the lead. “Whoa boy!

Whoa!” the man shouted. With a winded voice he said, “We’re gonna have to
blindfold him.”

Kristen found a clean towel in the barn to use as a shroud and gave it to the handler. The man draped it over Bullet’s face, and told Kristen to go into the trailer and call to her horse. Slowly he walked the animal toward the trailer as Kristen coaxed him inside with her voice. This time Bullet stepped forward calmly. The minute he was inside, the handler closed the trailer doors behind him. “Two obstacles down and one more to go,” Kristen whispered softly to herself.

Hours later Kristen learned that she had made the right decision. The vet announced that Bullet was treatable. The horse was suffering from ulcers and could be cured with medicine and a special diet. Kristen stroked her horse’s neck and spoke softly to him. “Well, old boy don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You helped me. Now I’m going to help you.”

A Vacation from Virtual Reality 

Mark raced forward trying to gain enough speed to leap across a dangerous ravine
along the Royal Arch Trail. As he pushed
off from the trail and sailed through the air,
he heard his mother frantically calling to him. Her voice was booming from behind him, distracting him from his task and robbing him of the energy needed for a successful jump. His body fell short of its intended target, crashed into the rocky cliff opposite him, and slid two hundred feet down the jagged rock, landing with a splash in the churning waters of the river below him.


“Mark! Turn that computer off now!” Mrs. Johnson shouted.


“But Mom,” Mark whined in response. He had become obsessive about Hiking USA, an online computer game where players attempt to complete obstacle courses in a virtual reality version of the great outdoors. Mark had a ravenous desire to be the top scorer of the game. With diligence, he had succeeded in getting his name listed among the top ten players, but that wasn’t enough to suit him. He wanted to be the best.


 “Stop whining!” Mrs. Johnson demanded. “If you don’t stop spending all your time playing computer games, you’ll end up being illiterate. If you don’t like classic novels, you could at least try to read travel guides. You need to get out and glean some information about the real world!”


Mrs. Johnson continued ranting, but Mark tuned her out. He had heard her speeches before and knew they never lasted more than six minutes. After precisely five minutes and twenty-three seconds a pamphlet sailed through the air and landed in his lap. Mark always knew his mother missed her calling to be a pitcher in the major leagues. As Mrs. Johnson walked away, Mark heard her say that they would be leaving next week. Leaving? For where? Mark realized that this time he should have listened more carefully to what she was saying. He picked up the colorful, glossy pamphlet and read the title: “Experience Nature at Slither River Ranch.” Photos of old men fishing on a peaceful pond, pitching tents, and sitting by a campfire were evidently meant to be appealing, but they made Mark feel morose. Clearly, there was no excitement to be had at Slither River Ranch. 

Tossing the brochure aside, Mark turned back to his computer game, but before his fingers could touch the keyboard, the electricity went out. His computer monitor turned black. In the hallway, Mrs. Johnson tried to stifle her guffawing by covering her mouth with her hand. No doubt Mr. Johnson was in the basement strategically pushing levers on the electric switch box. Mark did his best to tolerate his parent’s connivance to cut his computer game short, but he also vowed to pack his laptop for the trip.


A week later, when the Johnson’s arrived at Slither River Ranch, Mark discovered how the vacation spot got its name. The place was so desolate that Mark was certain that neither online satellite photos nor MapQuest directions existed for it. No electric power lines traversed the landscape to ruin the beauty of the wilderness; consequently, when Mark’s laptop battery died, there was no way to recharge it. He was left with no other option than to, egad, explore reality!

Early in the morning, Mark slipped quietly away and set out alone to explore the woods. Four trails led off into the wilderness that surrounded the Johnson’s bivouac. Just like Robert Frost, Mark chose the one less traveled, and it made all the difference. 


Thirty minutes later Mrs. Johnson woke up and found the note Mark had left for his parents. “Oh dear! George! Come quick! Mark snuck out to go hiking!”

“Honey. Calm down. He’ll be fine. I’m sure he won’t go far. He’ll call us if he needs us. Besides, after today computer games will seem boring to him.” A sly smile emerged on Mr. Johnson’s face. 

“I guess you’re right,” Mrs. Johnson sighed. "If you start a campfire, I’ll cook up some eggs. He’ll probably be hungry when he gets back.” 

By lunchtime, there was still no sign of Mark. An ominous feeling overcame Mrs. Johnson, “George, something is wrong. I just know it! We’ve got to call for help!” 

Mr. Johnson stared at her silently. Mrs. Johnson’s eyes grew wide with panic as she read her husband’s mind. Cellphone service was unavailable. “George! Mark can’t use his cellphone! Oh, how could I have been so stupid! You drive to the ranger station and get help. I’ll stay here in case he comes back. HURRY!”

By afternoon, a search party had been organized.  Just as everyone was setting out to find Mark, he emerged from the trail in a daze. Unable to walk straight, he listed to the left and to the right as if drunk. “Mom! Dad!” Mark shouted


“He’s hurt!” Mrs. Johnson shouted to her husband as she ran toward her son. Mark’s left leg was red and swollen. Looking closely, Mrs. Johnson could see two small puncture wounds. “Snake bite! 


A ranger rushed to examine the wound. “What did the snake look like?” the ranger asked with concern. 



Mark rambled on about the escapades that lead to his injury. “It was awesome! I found a path that lead past a waterfall to the top of the mountain. I could see clear into the next state, but I didn’t notice the snake at my feet. I accidentally stepped on him. That’s when he bit me. He wouldn’t let go! I had to pry his teeth away from my leg. The thing had to be at least eight feet long. Just wait until my friends hear about it!”

“Was it black and gray and shiny?” the ranger asked, trying once more to get some useful information out of Mark.

“Yes! Is it poisonous?” Mark asked the ranger as his parents stood by, fearing the worst.

“It looks like a glossy snake bite. They’re big but harmless. You’ll be okay, but let’s get you to the doctor to clean out that bite.” 


“Oh, thank God!” Mrs. Johnson dropped to her knees by her son’s side. “Mark, from now on you can play computer games as often as you like!”

The audio-enhanced version 
of this story and 
supplemental materials 
may be purchased online. 

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Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth -

Bullet in his paddock.
Reading teachers are familiar with "high interest low level" stories designed for use with middle school and high school students who are struggling readers. Saving Bullet belongs to a new genre of short stories known as "short stories with big words." Stories within this genre are flash fiction composed of approximately 1000 words. Students with attention deficit  disorder should have no trouble reading these stories as they can often be read within ten minutes. Despite the short length, these stories are beneficial for building vocabulary because they contain a high concentration of advanced vocabulary words. When used with the supplemental materials, students should be able to build their vocabulary quickly, which in turn will help improve their reading comprehension. Additionally, the downloadable version of the story, which is available on the website, included embedded audio so that a student with dyslexia may hear the story read aloud. The free version of Adobe Acrobat reader is all that is needed to use the downloadable stories, which a affordably priced. Check them out!