A real-life scenario that took place at the ranch, which I gave to my in-progress novel, Mustang Crossing:
Checking wild horse records with Jake reminded Jessi of going through the cattle records with her father, which reminded her of doing the same when her mother was alive, and even Colter. While she preferred being ahorseback, the first time her dad asked her to take notes while they were preg-checking the cows, she felt so proud. On a yellow legal pad she made columns for the cow’s eartag number, whether the cow was bred or open, and any notes her father dictated. “Big calf. March!” Or “Late April.” Colter had the job of helping move the cows through the chute but he got tired and distracted easily. No one knew then that he was sick. The next year he couldn’t help at all. The year after, he was gone.
Jessi turned the gelding toward home. Just that slight change in direction made her feel better; in fact, she felt good as the thought of seeing Jake soon traveled through her torso and into her tired thighs.
And there he was, moving at an easy lope over a rise in the valley floor, heading right toward her. She nudged Alpine into a lope, too, happy that even if months passed when she didn’t ride—like when she was pregnant and then not—the saddle and the motion and the freedom felt so familiar. So comfortable. And comforting. Horses were home to her.
Jake was starting to feel like home, too, and for once she let that feeling ride along with her instead of pushing it away. The two horses accelerated their paces as they sensed the shifts in their riders—not barn-bound but toward each other.
When Jake drew near he looked sun-flushed and windblown, and Jessi’s thighs felt instantly energized. Then she saw his face more clearly—his arresting handsomeness, which had snagged her attention the first time he walked into the diner, and a flash of worry. Or distress? She pulled Alpine up. Jake also rode a mustang, one he had adopted after capturing it in his bait-trapping setup and hauling it to Canon City, and the horse seemed agitated. It stopped and blew and greeted Jessi’s mount muzzle-to-muzzle and then it looked back in the direction from which he and Jake had come. Jake looked behind him, as well.
“What?” Jessi said.
“I don’t know. It’s something I haven’t seen before. A stallion down, as if he’s paralyzed or something. He tries to get up but he can’t.”
“Do you know who it is? What band?”
Jake hesitated. He did know. It was the palomino stallion he had trapped with the three mares he was taking to eastern Colorado that fateful night when all hell broke loose at the Lynks corrals. The stallion who attacked two of Lou’s boys. Jessi had to fight BLM to get him released back onto the range, to a life of freedom after trauma, and she won. He had stayed far away from humans ever since.
While she loved every single horse out there, she had her favorites. “It’s Piper,” he said, the tremble in his voice surprising him. “Jessi, he needs a vet.” Or a bullet, he thought but couldn’t say. He knew Jessi was packing—ever since the day they discovered the fence deliberately cut and had the confrontation with the hats, when they were ahorseback Jessi wore her dad’s Colt on her hip or had a rifle in the scabbard on her saddle; hiking, she wore the smaller .38 on her belt. He had tried to talk her out of carrying but she got that stubborn look and said, “It’s my right, just like it’s theirs.” The law agreed with Jessi—if the guns were registered to her, it was legal.
“I don’t think we can call a vet from here.” Jessi pulled out her cellphone. “Do you have service? Tell me more about Piper.” She started off at a trot in the direction from which Jake had ridden, then urged her horse into a lope. Jake moved alongside her, talking through the easy rhythm of his gelding’s gait.
“No service.” He tucked his phone away. “Jessi, he’s bad. Down on his side and then he tries to stand up and sits for a minute before flopping back down, kicking for footing, whinnying, even eating dirt.”
“So definitely not colic.”
“Not like any I’ve ever seen.”
“Show me,” and she let Jake take the lead.
They pulled up on a rise overlooking another broad sweep of basin floor scattered with big sagebrush and an occasional juniper, a dirt tank in the distance showing a shimmer of water. Far off, mustang dust trailed some horses on the move; closer, a small cluster milled about, stepping toward something on the ground, sniffing, spooking away. But they didn’t go far. Jessi lifted her fieldglasses to pull the scene in closer and saw the palomino stallion on the ground. Piper. His mares around him, he tried to stand and it was as Jake said: He could raise his head and almost sit then his legs spasmed straight out, flopping him back on his side. He flung his head in the dirt.
Jessi rode closer, Jake behind her. The stallion whinnied. A mare moved nearer, her nose down, wanting to understand, but his crazy ground-bound movements scared her away.
Jessi wanted to run, too.
She looked at her phone. No service to call out. She could feel the weight of steel at her hip. She did not look at Jake. On parole, he could not go near a firearm. Would not. It had to be her. She felt sick.
When she finally twisted around in her saddle to see him, Jake was studying his phone. She still hated that these small contraptions took people’s attention away from the vast and often beautiful world before them, their focus shrinking even out here. But her world wasn’t beautiful right now. Except the Jake part, and she was glad for the small thrill looking at him gave her day.
He felt her attention and glanced up, holding his phone out by way of explanation. “I got online,” he said almost sheepishly. “Typed in paralysis in horses.”
Jessi moved her gelding so the horses stood so closely side by side that her leg pressed into Jake’s. He handed her the phone. “A mosquito can do that?” She glanced at Piper, wishing not to hear his struggle as he whinnied again.
“It says it’s not contagious—can’t transfer from horse to horse or horse to human. Only the animal the mosquito bites gets it.”
“If that’s what it is.”
“Whatever it is, it’s bad.” Jake took his phone back and they rode nearer the band and Piper. “But this sounds right. Causes inflammation of the brain. Makes them do crazy things.”
“Like eat dirt? He’s even crunching rocks.” Jessi had stopped again and focused the binoculars.
“I know.” She had watched her father do it. Not in the front like people say but behind the ear into the brain stem. This meant she had to get close. Really close. She surveyed the situation. Band stallion down. The worried mares. Piper didn’t have a lieutenant stallion. The band would roam until another stallion picked them up. Coyotes and buzzards would pick Piper clean. Ravens and magpies. Maybe a bear if any were left in the area.
“But what if we’re wrong? What if he can get better? How do we know for sure?”
“Jessi.” Jake sounded tired. “Jessi, to doctor him you have to be able to IV meds and then fluids into him.”
Jake rode toward a lone juniper and swung his long leg over his saddle to the ground. His mustang did a little jig and Jake’s voice settled him. Jessi followed, settling a little at Jake’s voice, too.
It was a longer step for her because her legs were shorter, but her gelding stood still. She’d had Alpine for ten years now and he was familiar with her antics, like getting tied to a tree while Jessi roamed about afoot.
But she wasn’t roaming. She was determined, her hardwood veneer covering her like armor, her hand on the Colt .45. She thought of her father, how he’d had to put too many animals down—horses, cattle, even dogs—and then watch his own son and wife die. There were so many deaths in this life. With mustangs, it had to be almost okay, as death was as natural as life and often she didn’t know what caused it, other than a guess at old age. She rarely saw the decaying animal so she rarely knew for certain what happened. And usually in an instance like this, BLM was responsible for putting the animal down. But BLM was hours away—finding phone service could take at least an hour, and then the drive from town, Piper in his crazed suffering all that time. No. It was up to her. Later she would decide whether or not to tell BLM. That’s when it occurred to her that she was about to break the law. Again.
Jake didn’t know what to do. He stood with the horses beside the scrub juniper, wanting them to stay calm, wanting to find some extra calmness in himself. Without any more words to him Jessi walked slowly toward Piper’s mares, who moved warily away. She talked to them—he could hear her voice, soothing if distant. He wanted to protect her somehow; he wanted to talk about it before she went but she’d moved away from him as if in a trance, and he watched her pull the pistol from the holster, check to see if it was loaded, make sure the safety was on, and he realized then that she meant to protect him—he wasn’t part of the decision or the action—and to honor her intent further he turned his back to the wild woman and wild horse, bracing himself, holding on to the reins of the geldings’ bridles instead of tying them so they wouldn’t break a branch if they spooked and cause a worse wreck, and he waited for the explosion, the violence of the bullet, even if spent in kindness, as it broke the air, and it didn’t come. Until it did.
One shot, and the sound of mustang feet fleeing over the desert.
Oh, my! I could see this happening and feel it!
Thank you, Pat! Just FYI: I didn’t have to shoot him–the vet did that, for which I am eternally grateful.
Wow, tension, strain, intrigue. Good job!
Mahalo! I wish it weren’t written from watching one of our horses die. And I am so glad I found a place to put the horror.