Hard year out here. What little grass there is has no nutritional value. Dry and white looking, with no life to it. Have seen a few dead horses and cattle through here. Wild horses keep coming around at night, trying to lure Gizmo away. Maybe they’re just looking for something to eat and figure he has food somewhere. It’s a hard life for any critter living on the land out here.
I saw her from a half mile away, standing alone amidst the dry sage and rabbit weed. Truth be told, Gizmo spotted her first and signaled to me as he always did, with his ears. He didn’t take his eyes off her as we trotted slowly in her direction. I could see that her head was down, neck drooped and sagging, as if she were asleep on her feet. She didn’t move as we got closer. Gizmo began to call to her, and by the time we had closed the gap to a hundred fifty yards, I knew something was wrong.
I didn’t ride straight up to her for fear she was sick and might infect my horse. Instead, I reined Gizmo off to the side and stopped to tie him to a small acacia tree. Some dry scrub grass distracted him, and he began to nibble on it while I walked over to check on the troubled horse.
I approached the mare slowly, extending my hand until it met her sagging neck. I spoke softly the whole time, “Here, girl … easy … I’m not gonna hurt you … easy girl.” She flinched a bit when I first touched her, but once I began to stroke the side of her neck, she settled, as if it were too much work to be frightened. I could see she was blind. Her eyes were a cloudy, whitish blue and stared ahead, unresponsive and unseeing.
She was a sorrel mare, a wild horse without facial markings, stockings, or brand. She would never have passed as a fancy horse, conformation wise, with her parrot mouth and Roman nose, but to me she was beautiful just the same. Her tail was knotted and filthy, and her flaxen mane hung in clumps down both sides of her neck in a haphazard hairdo, separated in places as if it had been parted that way on purpose. Her breath came in short gasps, husky and labored, with a rasp on the inhale and a wheeze on the exhale. Her tongue hung from one side of her mouth, and I ran my fingers down her face until I could take the tongue lightly in my grasp. It was dry.
I walked back to Gizmo and fetched my canteen from the saddle, then returned to the mare and poured a small amount of water onto her parched tongue. She lapped at it eagerly. I began to dribble it into my cupped hand so that she could drink. She slowly gained a sort of rhythm, sucking and lapping the water as I poured it very slowly, until the canteen was empty.
It was impossible to tell the mare’s age by looking at her. She seemed old, well past twenty, but that was because she was skin and bones. I managed a cursory look in her mouth. She still had some small cups on her uppers, and by the angle of the teeth, I could tell that she was well past a mature eight-year-old, but probably not much more than twelve or so. Her black hooves were those of a wild horse on the range, dry and hard, but in good shape and kept short by the rough miles she traveled. Her skin hung off in hunks, dry and lifeless. She was a skeleton with a hide draped over it, her extended backbone and ribs were the most prominent features. She wasn’t a big horse—I guessed her nominal working weight should have been about eleven hundred pounds, but I doubted she weighed much more than half that.
She was completely dehydrated, and god only knew how long she had gone without water. I knew what was wrong with her because I’d seen it several times in the past weeks out there on the Navajo Reservation. It was a tough year, dry, almost no spring rainfall, and what little grass grew was parched and empty of nourishment. Many of the wild horses had taken to eating locoweed. Gizmo and I had passed a few corpses along the trail. I knew that even if I could somehow move the mare to food and shelter, her condition was not curable. She had been loco’ed for too long. It was ironic how the plant seemed to thrive as the environment became drier and more inhospitable. While everything around it was drying up and dying, the weed was lush and moist, displaying its vigor with a sort of arrogance, its shiny green leaves and beautiful blooming purple flowers a stark contrast to the dull browns and beiges of the surrounding prairie plants. The locoweed exuded a healthiness that offered an empty promise of well-being to any critter attracted to it.
I sat down next to the mare and started talking to her for what ended up being over an hour. Gizmo didn’t mind the break, and he finally dozed off. I spoke to her about what a great world we live in, and I told her how I wished she could see it all. I talked about the ocean Gizmo and I had left, and I described the mountains back to the west, with snow on the peaks and great parks of lovely green grass in the meadows. I spoke of railroads and automobiles and of other human things. I told her how people love each other and how they kill each other all at the same time.
I described a waitress I had met in Flagstaff who was waiting tables at a little café, and told of how pretty and friendly she was, how she had flirted with me, and how the place had a great jukebox full of fine old country music. I told the mare what it’s like to ride across the southwestern desert through the night on a freight train with no company except the sound of the boxcar’s wheels clicking against the steel rails. I don’t remember what all I talked about, but I kept talking, and I know I sort of unloaded on that little sorrel mare. I asked her about her life and what trails she’d seen, and if she had any family nearby. I told her I hoped all her babies had grown into fine horses and that they were safe and healthy. Finally, I told her how happy I was that our trails had crossed and how honored I was to meet her.
I stood up, laid one hand on her withers, and reached to scratch her behind the ear with the other. “You see ol’ Gizmo over there? Well, he’s still a youngster, and he’s just startin’ down the trail. But I reckon you’ve about come to the end of yours, haven’t you, old girl?” As I reached down, I said, “I guess all of us come finally to the end of the trail at some point. And I suppose none of us really gets to choose when that happens.”
The mare’s eyes were closed now, and she had relaxed and become used to my voice. “It’s just that, well … I’m guessin’ those coyotes out there will come for you tonight, and I’m thinkin’ you deserve an easier way out. And maybe I was put here to see to that …”
I pulled back the hammer as I raised the old single action Colt and placed the end of the barrel just behind her ear.
“Safe travels, old girl. Rest easy now. I love you.” Tears welled up, and I couldn’t stop them.
Gizmo jumped as the gun exploded and the mare went down. He looked at her warily for a few seconds then dismissed her and went back to nibbling at the surrounding plants, as if killing the horse was all part of a normal day’s work. I holstered the pistol then knelt to make sure the mare was dead. I was sobbing now.
“Goodbye, sweet lady,” I said. I walked back to my horse and untied him. As I stepped up into the saddle I looked back at her. “Goddammit,” I whispered softly.
The coyotes would have her tonight, but she was past caring.