“How’s the saddle?”
“Feels like an old warped McClennan.”
Alex laughed that little short laugh of his. “I picked it to fit the mare, not you.”
“I’m glad she’s happy,” I grumbled. “I’d hate to have a thousand pounds of pissed off horse under me.”
Alex laughed again. Everything was funny to that guy.
I leaned over to take another look at the make-shift stirrup strap. The leather had given out at the last stop, and we had rigged a replacement with an old bandana and a couple of saddle straps. I shifted to the left and put a little weight on it to test it. The mare shifted her weight to balance me and blew through her nose. Alex nudged his horse up and leaned down to tug at the knots.
“What do you think?” I asked him. He straightened in his saddle and looked at me. “Why you got so many questions? They ain’t made you any smarter.” He turned his horse and started picking his way down the slope. I nudged the mare and she followed.
Forty minutes later we came up out of the wash at the far end of the canyon and stopped. I dismounted on the off-side, not trusting the stirrup, while Alex stayed in his saddle and glassed the canyon.
“There they are,” he said. “Three, six, looks like about ten of them.” He slowly scanned the canyon, then handed me the binoculars. “It’s the same bunch we spotted this morning. The wind is in our favor. We can practically ride right into them.” He had a steam-shovel grin the size of a Rolls-Royce radiator grill and I swear his dark eyes had little pin-points of red in them. For the first time I started to get a little uneasy feeling way down in my gut.
“Are you sure this is okay? I mean, you’ve done this before, right?”
He looked at me, and all I could see was that maniacal grin. “Who’s gonna stop us? Look where we are.”
“Well,” I stammered, ”you know, BLM, or the BIA bastards…”
He laughed long and hard that time.
I mounted, from the off-side, and we started down toward the herd of mustangs we had been trailing all day. I still had the binoculars, and I kept glassing the horizon, watching for jeeps, trucks, dust or any sign of official Government agents.
Suddenly that little mare gave a quick jerk. I clamped my knees and pulled up on the reins. We were within two hundred yards of the herd and Alex had taken off at a run. I dropped the binoculars into the case, kicked with my heels and the mare jumped, almost dumping me, and started off after Alex.
If you’ve never gone full out on a horse with a free head, I’m not even going to attempt to describe it to you. You can’t help but laugh with the pure joy of it.
In a minute or so we were in the herd. They weren’t panicked, but were making a run down the canyon, not sure what to make of us. Alex had picked out a fine looking buckskin mare, and he motioned me toward her as he readied his lariat. I came up on her near side, close enough to see her eye rolling at me, and suddenly she veered right, to the outside of the herd. Alex raced his horse in to take my place, I dropped back and crossed his trail, staying on the buckskin’s right quarter, and then it was just the three of us, Alex on the left, me on the right, and that feisty mustang in the middle. Alex was grinning like madman. I suspect I was doing the same.
We had almost reached the wash, intending to drive the mustang into it and tire her out, when we became aware of the noise. I knew instantly what it was. I looked over at Alex. He hunkered into his horse’s neck and swung that lariat like a windmill at the mustang’s rump, trying to get some speed out of her.
“The trees!” he yelled, and drove his horse at the mustang, who swung into my path and took off like a bullet. I kicked my mare and dug my knees in, feeling very unstable, afraid to put too much pressure on that patched up stirrup. We went full tilt for a clump of trees, mesquite and greasewood, about a half mile away in the shade of the canyon wall, driving that buckskin before us.
Right before we reached it the helicopter came into view, powering over the canyon wall, close enough for me to see a figure in the open cargo door.
“They have rifles!” I shouted out, just as the mustang crashed into the brush. I heard Alex yell back. “Let’s hope they’re bad shooters!” and then he laughed as he disappeared in the trees. A second later I followed.
The buckskin mare had run into the canyon wall, turned to find Alex behind her, and got herself tangled in the brush. She was standing still, blowing her flanks out and watching Alex, who was standing with his arms out, lariat at the ready. I pulled up sharp, almost setting my horse on her haunches, swung out of the saddle and fell like a sack of onions, the broken stirrup still on my boot. My mare sidled off and stood staring at me like I was something that had just fallen out of the sky. I still held the reins, but she went off as far as the slack would allow, shook her head and began nuzzling around for something to munch. I swear that horse was laughing at me. You’ll never convince me different.
As the sound of the helicopter faded away, I pulled the stirrup off my boot, stood up with as much grace and dignity as I could muster, put the stirrup in my saddlebag and turned toward Alex. He had an arm over the mustang’s neck, scratching behind her ear and talking quietly. As I approached he brushed her mane up and motioned for me to take a look.
At the base of the mane, in a neat line, were a series of numbers burned into the hide. The hair had grown in white, making the numbers almost glow in the shady twilight of the grove.
“BLM mustang,” Alex said. “She was caught and marked, but somehow she either got loose or somebody kicked her loose.” He put a hand on her jowl and pressed his face to her nose, letting her smell him. “No wonder she was so easy to catch.”
“You think the helicopter saw us?”
“They didn’t turn around, and they didn’t try to land. They’re probably just out making a spring count, see how many survived the winter.”
“They had rifles. Why would they have rifles?”
Alex looked at me with that grin. “They’re white guys. They work for the Government.” His tone suggested that it was silly to try to understand why lunatics do loony things. He fished a carrot out of his vest pocket and let the buckskin take a bite of it.
“She’s been around people.”
I put a hand up and rubbed her nose, amazed, as always, at the incredibly soft velvet feel of it. She snuffed twice into my palm, checking me out, then went back for more carrot.
“She’s probably at least green broke,” I said. “You going to keep her?”
“What for? I already have a good horse.” He patted her neck a few times. “We’ll run her up on the flat and make sure she finds the herd. Then we’ll head back.”
I blew up. ”You sun-baked horse thief! I could have got killed, or worse! Not to mention that it’s against the law to…..what the hell did we do this for? I thought you said you wanted another horse.”
Alex gave me an intense look. I could see the shine in his eyes. Then he grinned and quoted a line from a movie.
“What’s the matter? Don’t ya like to have fun no more?” He gathered the reins of his horse and led him up toward the flat. After a moment’s hesitation, the buckskin mare followed. Alex called back, without stopping or turning around. “We’ll have ourselves a drink when we get back.”
“I thought alcohol was illegal on the reservation.” I grabbed my mare’s reins and fell in behind the mustang. Alex, up on the flat, didn’t stop.
“It is,” was all he said. I could almost hear his damn Rolls Royce grin. After a while, I was grinning myself. Then I was laughing. That old horse thief thought he had my number.
I climbed into the saddle, left foot dangling.
“ I laughed again and kicked the mare into a run. The sun, low in the west, stretched my shadow twenty feet along the ground, and I could see myself bouncing like a pumpkin in the broken saddle. I heard Alex laughing up ahead, like an echo of my own laughter.
It felt good to laugh.