BY THELMA LUMPKIN
Jake had his eye on that bay mare since last fall. She runs with a free-range herd of mustangs in the Sandwash Basin Wild Horse Preserve in the northwest corner of Colorado. She’s a big mare, bigger than most mustangs, and the first time Jake saw her, he blew out all his breath in one long exhale. She had looked him right in the eye, long and steady, and that was it.
Jake’s last horse had that look. He was a chunky Quarter Horse gelding with a big trot, and Gloria loved to ride him. She… No, he’s not going there.
The mare’s markings are unusual for a bay. She has the standard brown body with black mane, tail, and legs, but the standard coloring is skewed by four white stockings that leave just a few inches of black over the knees. Jake never saw a bay horse with four white stockings, and that’s what first caught his eye. Then she gave him that look.
Since Jake lives on the edge of the Sandwash Basin, he answers most of the calls for volunteers to count new foals in the herd. It was on one of those calls a few months ago that he first saw the bay mare. She had a foal by her side, and while Jake was watching them, a chestnut mare came at the bay with flat ears, fiery eyes, and bared teeth, and corralled the foal away. Hardly three horse-lengths from the bay, the foal tucked his head under the chestnut mare and started to nurse. The bay turned her dark eyes to Jake in a steady, direct look, and that’s when Jake whispered to himself, “There it is.”
Today, the foal count is 34, and just to pass the time– or more likely so that he can be in the company of the horses longer– he counts 281 horses. If he could have thought of a way to do it, he would have separated the count into mares and stallions, but the bay mare is the only one standing still long enough to let him know which she is. He watches her browse on what is left of the grain spread along the fence line to draw the horses and keep them there for the count.
Finally, the last of the grain is gone and the herd moves off, some walking, some trotting, then breaking into a run. Jake watches them gallop away in tight formation like molasses pouring across the landscape and wishes he could send thoughts of Gloria with them. She’s the one who left. He’s not going to crawl.
At a canter, the bay mare travels by herself behind the herd. She watches the colt traveling like a shadow of the chestnut mare who still nurses him even though he is weaned. The colt is not the chestnut’s foal. He was foaled by the bay mare. The colt knows it, as does the chestnut mare. But the bay mare was dry when she foaled the colt, and the chestnut mare claimed him to replace her stillborn foal, and so the colt stays with the chestnut, but keeps the bay in the corner of his eye.
The herd heads for the Yampa River to wash down the sweet grain with mountain water. It’s a short gallop, and once there they line up along the river’s edge and dip their noses daintily into the smooth flow close to the bank.
The bay mare stands a short distance away watching the chestnut mare and the colt drinking together, their noses almost touching. She shakes her head and paws the ground until it turns into a muddy hole, then with legs spread, head and neck ramrod straight, eyes wild, nostrils flared, she trumpets a blast of air through her nose and whinnies with such force that her whole body trembles.
Startled, the colt’s front legs buckle, and his forequarters go down in the shallow water. The chestnut rears and twists in midair, landing in front of the colt, her body bunched up, ready to protect what she had taken as her own.
The leader of the herd, a gray stallion, trots between the two mares and stands with his tail lashing, his eyes on the bay mare as she glares past him at the chestnut. Gradually, the bay’s head lowers, her body relaxes, her eyes lose their ferocity. She turns and leaves the river bank.
Back home, Jake leaves his truck alongside the house and strides toward the barn. His property is a long, narrow, two-acre strip with a small house in the front third, three grass paddocks in the middle third, and a small barn at the back.
“Not enough grass to keep a goat alive,” his friends had told him, referring to the three small grass paddocks. But Jake never intended for the paddocks to be serious feed for his horses. They were meant to be a change of scenery and maybe a little browsing on the sparse grass.
The last two horses Jake had seemed content enough with the paddocks that connected with the barn and their stalls, plus an occasional visit to one of the grass paddocks. It meant that Jake bought hay all year round at a cost of twenty cents a pound, but no matter. Jake had things the way he wanted them. With wheels rolling in a greased track, the 16-foot barn door opens easily, and Jake stands inside, looking at the two empty stalls.
Hi-Jack was the chunky gelding, a Quarter Horse who had once earned his keep with winnings at the State Fair Quarter Horse races until he bowed a tendon on a muddy track and got himself put on stall rest, then came up unsound for racing. He was given to a local farmer, and when the farm was sold for a new condo development, Hi-Jack was turned over to a horse rescue group.
Jake adopted him, and not long after, Jake fell in love with a big overgrown baby, a racing flunk-out Thoroughbred with a cumbersome registered name. He bought the flighty three-year-old, brought him home kicking and screaming in the trailer, and introduced him to Hi-Jack.
It was by no means love at first sight for Hi-Jack, who looked up at the bottom of the Thoroughbred’s chin, flattened his ears, and went for the throat. Jake heard the snap of teeth as the Thoroughbred backed out of the grip and away from fence rails that separated them. In the next second, however, the Thoroughbred dove back at Hi-Jack, his teeth glancing off Hi-Jack’s withers. That was when Jake decided it was back to the stalls for both of them until they learned to get along.
That was also when something sparked in Jake’s head– long dark hair, silver-blue eyes, a smile that was electronic… Damn you, Gloria! It was two years ago. How long is he going to be plagued by all that?
For a few weeks, it was an armed truce between Hi-Jack and Backatcha– his re-name for the Thoroughbred– until gradually, Hi-Jack seemed to recant from the first impression he may have made on Backatcha by presenting one overture at a time: first, an offer to scratch Backatcha’s withers, then joining Backatcha for a drink at the water tub, next initiating a run now and then in their separate paddocks, and soon the adversaries became friends. Whether it was love or desperation– Jake winces at the parallel he senses between those two– since each of them had no one but the other, the stalemate was broken with Hi-Jack’s friendly overtures, and Backatcha’s reserved acceptance.
But all that, including Gloria, is past, and Jake has to keep reminding himself of that. After both horses ran the course of their lives and were laid in their backyard graves, Jake’s barn stood empty, a memorial to the good old days of hard work and beautiful rides. Yes, rides with Gloria, damn her! And always the joy of seeing his horses from every back window of his house.
Through the years, other horses were offered to Jake, good horses, honest horses in need of new homes, but Jake couldn’t take any of them. He put all that behind him and found homes somewhere else for the horses. His barn was too full to have room for more horses, and what filled it were old memories. But now, that bay mare…
Trouble is brewing between the bay mare and the chestnut, and the colt is in the middle of it. The bay mare keeps her distance from the chestnut and from the herd, but she nickers at the colt and never loses sight of him. Survival instinct keeps the colt close to the chestnut mare, but blood calls to blood, and the colt feels the pull of it. He is between two worlds without belonging to either.
There is a bend in the Little Snake River just before it joins the Yampa, and after heavy rains, the Little Snake overflows at that bend, receding again to leave ever-deepening beds of fine sand, perfect for horses to roll. The herd is on its way there now, the bay mare still lagging behind, never losing sight of the colt. Traveling together, the chestnut mare and the colt are in the middle of the herd, well insulated by those around them. In the lead is the gray stallion, sire of both the bay mare’s colt and the chestnut mare’s stillborn foal.
Estimated by the herd management officers to be eight to ten years old, the gray stallion has fought through the years to keep his leadership position, and as evidence wears black scars from slashing hooves and slicing teeth of younger stallions. He leads his herd aggressively, and if any choose not to follow there is uncompromising correction. In that way, the gray has designed his herd and tightened it into a unit of many that will act as one at his direction.
With the sandy bend in sight, he slows his gallop to an extended trot, beautiful to watch as he seems to float between strides, opposing legs straight out, thrusting and reaching in a natural fluid gait that would be the envy of the show ring. At the water’s edge, he comes to a bouncing stop and wades in to drink. Some follow him, others go down on their knees in the soft sand then flop and roll, first one side then the other.
The colt has chosen to roll at the water’s edge, half in and half out of the shallows. The chestnut mare has waded in to drink, leaving the colt behind. Always watching, the bay mare sees the colt now apart from the others, and with head down and low nickers, she weaves her way through the herd toward him.
Alerted by the movement, the gray stallion lifts his head and turns to watch the bay mare. Beads of water, diamonds in the late-day sun, slide from his chin and fall into ever-widening circles on the water’s surface. Standing close by, the chestnut mare follows the stallion’s gaze and sees the bay mare and the colt.
Screaming, she wheels and plunges through the water toward the bay mare, ears flat, eyes bulged wide and ringed with white, nostrils splayed to red flesh. She scatters the herd as she races through them, and they trot away.
On guard, the bay mare turns to form a barrier between the colt and the chestnut, her body tense and quivering. The colt has long since ended his roll and stands a few feet away from the bay mare.
Roaring deep in her throat, the chestnut is upon them. She rears above the bay and comes down, hooves slashing. The bay swerves, and the chestnut slams into the shallows on all fours. The colt scatters. The bay wheels around, rearing to meet the chestnut, and they collide in midair, screaming and roaring, tearing at each other, teeth and hooves striking out with deadly force, battling with lethal intent in a fight that had to happen.
The gray stallion has stayed in place until he sees the chestnut’s attack, then he races toward them, exploding through the water like Pegasus about to fly. At the last moment before he’s close enough to interfere, the chestnut strikes out fast and hard with both front hooves, one after the other, and blood spurts from the bay mare’s neck. The stallion, close now, wheels and kicks out with both back legs between the mares. They separate, but the bay mare goes down in the shallows. The stallion kicks out again, and the chestnut backs off at a run, then turns and gallops away from the river, whinnying for the colt.
A few yards away, the colt has seen the bay mare go down. He nickers, and the bay mare, lying close to the shore, lifts her head, tries to nicker back but the sound is a low rasp. She lets her head fall again. The stallion grunts and touches noses with the bay mare, then rejoins the herd, already on its way to grazing grounds beyond the river.
Tentatively, the colt goes to the bay mare. She lifts her head to look at the colt, and her tongue slips in and out of her mouth. He touches his nose to her, and she lies flat again in the shallow water now turning red with her blood. There is rumbling in her throat, but she lies still, unmoving except for her eyes watching the colt trot away to the chestnut mare.
Jake is deep in day dreaming. He’s picturing the bay mare in the 10x12 stall, her long sleek body almost filling it, looking at him over the half-door, dark eyes giving him that look. He wonders if she would be content alone, with only small paddocks for her to stretch her legs. But no reason she would have to be alone… He could…
“Damn!” he hisses aloud. “I keep going right back to where I started! I’m not going through all that again… two horses, two riders…”
Pushing his back against the stall door, he slides down to the dirt floor in a squat, his head clamped in his hands, as though he can squeeze out all those pictures of the two of them riding, walking, laughing, talking, telling each other stories beginning with, “What if,” lying together in the grass afterwards, spent but so happy. It’s his fault. Got to be his fault.
He smacks the top of the stall door and starts for the house, sliding the barn door closed as he leaves. Once in the house, he heads for a small room off the kitchen which he calls his office. No more than an enlarged closet, it is the room where he pays bills and keeps records. An antiquated black rotary land-line phone sits on a shelf above a table made from three oak boards resting on two low file cabinets. He picks up the receiver and dials.
As it rings, he tells himself that this is okay. There’s no ulterior motive here. It’s just a logical decision, practical. No point in having a horse barn and leaving it empty. It’s all about the horses. That’s all it’s about, he tells himself.
“Hey, Everett,” he says, and they pass the usual pleasantries. Then he says, “Listen, Everett, I got an idea…”
All night, the bay mare lies in the shallow water, lifting her head now and then, testing her strength in an attempt to roll onto her chest and stand. Each time, the pain from the deep gash in her neck sends her down again. The wound gapes deep and raw.
The moon sifts in and out of invisible clouds, dark against dark in the night sky. Shining too brilliantly for a waning crescent, it throws a silvery iridescent light over the water each time it slips out of the clouds, and the bay mare, a glistening mound at the river’s edge is, in a way, spotlighted.
Blood is in the wind, calling card to a feast, and something at the top of a nearby rise waits for each revelation of the crescent moon. By interrupted stages, its spotted coat camouflaged by the speckled moonlight, it creeps in slow motion ever closer to the river’s edge. Stealth is its instinct, and it crawls low to the ground as it shortens the distance between it and the mound at the shoreline.
Instincts are also at work for the bay mare. Her will to survive has sharpened her senses, put her on alert. Her eyes roll in every direction. Her nostrils, just above the water, are widened to catch the faintest scent of intrusion. And now there it is, the scent of carrion and foul fur. She lifts her head just as the moon makes an appearance, and the approaching figure freezes. But too late. The mare knows him for what he is.
Her eyes are wild now. Her legs thrash in the water as though winding a spring that will propel her upwards and away. With every attempt to stand, she grunts long and hard, but each time the pain from the slash on her neck as she tries to thrust forward collapses her again. Finally panting and blowing, she lies flat. Seconds pass. The figure crawls more boldly then stands, confident of the conquest.
But wild as the predator is, the bay mare is his equal or perhaps, with her speed and flight instinct, his superior. She overrides pain and stiffness from immobility in the cold water and with a long wrenching cry, she forces herself onto her chest, stretches her front legs straight, pulls herself up, and in the next instant crashes through the shallow river onto the far bank, and is lost to the water-shy who must watch his prey disappear in the dark of the waning crescent moon.
It’s earlier than usual when Jake throws back the covers and leaves his bed. A few skimpy passes with the toothbrush, cold water splashed on his face, and he heads for jeans and a T-shirt draped across a bedside chair, studiously focusing on one step at a time.
“Seven-thirty at the earliest,” Everett had said, six o’clock being as early as he was willing to muck out and feed his own horses. “I’ll meet you there,” he had said, and when Jake arrives at the Little Snake Field Office, Everett calls him into his truck.
“We can drive in,” he says to Jake as he looks at Jake’s empty hands. “You bring a halter or anything with you? They don’t just jump into your arms, you know.”
He gives Jake a full smile to let him know he’s kidding.
“Naw,” Jake says, “All I brought is a skinny checkbook and a fat bag of carrots.”
“That’ll do it,” says Everett as he puts the truck in gear and heads for the gate into the preserve. “So what’s your plan? You coming back with someone later?”
“Yeah. I’ll bring the vet. Might have to use the needle.”
They are quiet for a while, and soon Everett points out the side window. “Over there,” he says, “near the river. Looks like part of the herd.”
Jake leans forward to see through the driver’s side window.
“Looks like they’re all crowded around something,” he says.
Everett says, “Probably smelling each other’s manure. They make a big deal out of that. Supposed to tell them who’s the strongest or the fastest or the next head honcho.”
“I heard about that. I suppose it’s as good a system as any. Maybe better than any we have right now, ya think?”
As they chuckle over that, the herd seems to be separating. The sound of the truck bumping over uneven ground has caught their interest. Trucks sometimes mean extra feed. They turn to watch its approach. Everett stops the truck some eighty feet away from the herd.
“Let’s see what they’re so interested in.” He opens the door on his side. “Just follow me slow. Don’t want to get them spooked.”
The horses watch as Jake and Everett walk slowly toward the group, and as they come closer, the horses back away, turning and trotting off, then stopping a short distance away to watch again. As they break the cluster they had formed, Jake and Everett see what was in the center of the circle.
“That’s her!” Jake says trying not to shout. “That’s the bay mare!”
“Looks like she’s got herself hurt,” says Everett. “Go slow now. If she’s broke a leg or worse, don’t want to make her try to run off.”
The bay mare is lying on her chest, nose resting on the ground, but when she sees the other horses moving away, she lifts her head, sees the men, and whinnies, loud and long.
“Geezus-damn!” says Everett, “I think she’s calling for help! That’s a first! Never had that happen before!”
After the bay mare had plunged her way out of the river, she ran for as long as she could before loss of blood overcame terror. She slowed to a trot then stopped, head held low, eyelids drooped, folded her legs, and laid full length partially hidden in a stand of sage brush. Her rib cage jerked up and down as she pumped hard to take in oxygen, and lying prone, spent as she was, a predator, perhaps one less water-phobic, could easily have taken her.
But more than blood was in the wind. Part of the herd was restless. A small group of older horses moved around, lifting noses, curling their lips to taste what it was they were sensing, snorting to clear their airways. Then one by one, they turned back toward the river and let their noses bring them to a stand of sage brush and the bay mare.
As elephants circle their young in the face of danger, the horses circled the bay mare, some nickering, some pawing the ground nearby, some bending toward her as though keening for her distress. They stayed until the truck came. Only then did they break the circle.
The two men look down at the mare, prone again, occasionally lifting her head just enough to roll her eye at them. The gash in her neck is bleeding more slowly, but each time she raises her head compressing the wound, a pool of blood lying deep in the wound rises to the top edges of the cut and overflows.
“Geezus-damn!” says Everett, "she’s cut the big artery! What the hell can we do for her now?”
“I don’t think she’s cut the artery, Everett,” says Jake. “If she cut that, it’d be spurting, or she’d be bled out by now.”
Everett says, “I’ll call the vet. He can be here in five minutes.”
He pulls a cell phone out of his back pocket, flips it open, and in seconds after he dials he tells Jake that the vet is on his way, in a six-horse Pullman.
The herd is acres away, beyond hills and valleys, juniper woods, and the Little Snake River, grazing on bunchgrass. The colt is close to the chestnut mare, but he is neither grazing nor nursing. Restlessly, he paces a few steps away from the chestnut, then turns back to the herd, nickering as he walks among them. For a while the horses separate for the colt as he wanders, then tiring of their own indulgence, they flatten their ears and warn him away with light nips, and the colt steps outside the herd, nickering across the emptiness.
Alone and away from the herd, the colt takes a few tentative steps and whinnies. No one answers. He turns to look at the herd. All heads are deep in the grass. None of them looks back. One more long look into the emptiness, and the colt steps into a fast walk, then trots, then stretches his neck and legs and gallops fast and straight toward the Little Snake River.
With the vet’s help, Jake and Everett have the bay mare on her feet. Her neck is cleaned and bandaged until it can be stitched, and groggy from tranquilizer, the mare is being guided into the Pullman.
“Think she’ll be okay?” says Jake to the vet.
“Oh yeah. She’s a good strong mare,” says the vet. ”Looks about five, six. She’ll do fine once we get that neck stitched up.”
Suddenly, the mare stops, her body taut. Ignoring pain, she stretches her head high, and with a rumble in her throat turns and gazes into the distance behind them.
Everett says, “What’s the matter with her, Doc? Is she going down?”
“Back off a little,” says the vet. “Give her some room in case she does. But I think she’s looking at something.”
The three men follow the bay mare’s gaze across the empty space. The sun, higher now, has mixed light with shadow, and the space behind them becomes a mosaic of shapes and textures, hills and valleys, grasses, bushes, and low growing trees, and dark pools of shade.
Hardly noticeable at first, something is coming toward them fast and straight. The mare whinnies in a shriek that penetrates the ground itself, and in return there comes a high squeaked reply. Swiveling in her tracks, the mare scatters the men as she turns to face the approach, and in the next moment, the colt bursts into full view. He slows to a trot and goes to the mare. They touch noses, nickering and rubbing against each other.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” says Everett. “That’s her colt come back to her!”
The men stand aside to give the bay mare plenty of room to welcome her colt.
“So what do we do now?” says the vet to Everett.
“Well,” Everett says, “It’s up to you, Jake. You still want the mare?” He holds up his hand to stop Jake’s ready answer. “She’s got that sliced neck, and we may not be able to get her away from the colt.”
Jake thinks a minute, rubbing his chin and scuffing at the ground with his toe. He looks at the Pullman, then at the vet.
“Does it matter where the mare is when you stitch her up?” Jake says to the vet. “I mean, can you do it…” he twirls his hand “Can you do it at my place, for example?”
“Sure,” says the vet. “Got the mobile surgery van. I can do anything in the mobile that I can do in the office surgery. You might need help taking care of her.”
Jake smiles and nods his head, then says, thinking as he answers, “I think I might be able to get some help.” Looking at Everett he says, “I got two empty stalls, Everett. How much are you going to charge me for the colt?”
As he says that, Jake’s mind is at work again, rationalizing, compromising, fooling himself into thinking that a mare and a colt is not two horses. Be a long time before anybody’s going to ride that colt, but a colt’s a damn magnet. Everybody loves a colt. A lot can happen when there’s a colt in a barn. A nagging nudge in his brain says, “and maybe nothing will happen.” But then there’s the flash of dark hair and those silver blue eyes again, and some other Jake says, “Nothing is not an option.”
The life of the herd goes on as though the bay mare and the colt have never been part of the family. That’s the way it is with horses. Weaving his way through the herd, the gray stallion finds the chestnut mare grazing alone. He nickers, and she arches her tail, squatting slightly. Alongside her now, he nips at her withers and scrapes his teeth along her neck, then quickly he is behind her, rising over her, teeth grasping the tough neck muscle just above the mare’s withers, then it is done.
The gray stallion and the chestnut mare graze and run together occasionally, but as the chestnut mare grows larger, she separates herself from the stallion and from the herd, and one day early the following summer, in a copse of pinyon-junipers the chestnut mare adds a healthy, spraddle-legged, brown and white colt foal to the herd.
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