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 of her as we trotted slowly in her direction. I saw that her head was down, neck drooped and sagging, as if 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 and 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. There was some dry scrub grass that distracted him, and he began to nibble on it while I walked over to check on the troubled horse.
I was able to walk up to 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 her down the side of her neck she settled, as if it were just 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 with no facial markings, no stockings and no 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 it lightly in my grasp. It was dry. I walked back to Gizmo and fetched my canteen from the saddle, returned to the mare and poured a small amount 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 just by looking at her. She looked very old, probably well past twenty, but that was because she was just skin and bones. I managed a cursory look at her teeth. There were still 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 had traveled. Her skin hung off in hunks, dry and lifeless. Her extended backbone and ribs were her most prominent feature. She was a skeleton with a hide draped over it. She wasn’t a big horse, and I guessed her nominal working weight should have been about eleven hundred pounds, but I doubted she weighed much more than half of 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 weeks past, out there on the Navajo rez. It was a tough year, dry, almost no 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 the drier and more inhospitable the environment became. 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 in stark contrast to the dull browns and beiges of the surrounding prairie plants. The locoweed exuded a healthiness that offered an empty promise of wellbeing to any critter attracted to it.
I sat down next to the mare and started talking to her for what seemed like a couple of hours or more. Gizmo didn’t mind the break and he finally just 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 that 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 there. I spoke of railroads and automobiles and of other human things. I told her how people love each other and kill each other all at the same time. I described a waitress I had met back in Flagstaff who was waiting tables at a little café, and how pretty and friendly she was, and 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 really remember what all I talked about, but I just kept on talking and I know I sort of unloaded on that little sorrel mare. And 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 I hoped they were safe and healthy. And finally, I told her how happy I was that our trails had crossed, and how honored I was to meet her.
I stood up and 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. I continued, “It’s just that, well… I’m guessin’ those coyotes out there will come for you tonight, and I’m thinkin’ maybe 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 it were 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.