“Did you hear me?” Yolana asked Dad. “This baby’s kicking.
You should feel it.
I’m getting punched, inside out.
Oh, holy cow, this is really something.
Give me your hand.” Ross and I went out to saddle the horses and left them like that.
Dad bent over Yolana, his hand on her stomach.
In the living room, green and red and yellow Christmas lights reflected off the gun barrels as smudges. The plan was to meet up with the other ranchers at the east mouth of Loca Canyon.
A stallion watered his herd at a stream running through it, and that herd was our target.
We rode, Dad and Yolana and me and Ross, through the quiet.
Yolana had tucked canteens of hot coffee in our saddlebags, and though I was already cold ten minutes into it.
I didn’t touch mine.
Nobody knew how long we’d have to wait.
Shadows from the sparse low clouds moved eerily on the ground.
Our horses’ hooves cracked ice in puddles. We met about a dozen other ranchers.
There were some jokes about Yolana’s being there, and I for one didn’t know why Dad had let her come, her kid kicking and all, but he had.
Except for that, it was a grim, silent affair with tight, sour men.
What we were doing was against the law, whether the law was right or wrong.
The horses snorted and their breath formed clouds in the dark air.
We followed a cattleman named Jim down a trail where the rock face was over our heads, fifteen or more feet high, down to the mouth of Bodeca Stream. We tethered the horses behind a front of junipers, leaving each with a feedbag attached to its bridle, and hiked in to hide ourselves in a copse of purple sage.
Ross sat beside me on the frozen ground.
We pulled out our canteens and drank, our shoulders brushing together.
I was shaking with cold and huffed into my hands to warm them.
Jim told us where the mustangs would appear and who was to aim where and who would cut off the south exit, and after that no one spoke, we all just stared towards the stream.
It was calm, like glass, with a dim reflection of the canyon walls.
The sky was starting to lighten.
Above the canyon we could see shades of deep bruisy blue and lines of orange. I don’t know how long it was before the mustangs came, probably no more than a half hour.
My breath caught in my throat; I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were.
A roan stallion led.
He stopped, smelled the air, tossed his head and pawed the ground.
I heart it, his hoof clattering on the rock; we were that close.
His nostrils sent our ragged plumes of steam and he whinnied.
But after a moment he pranced forward, high-stepping and going part sideways.
A passel of mares followed him.
I tried counting them but couldn’t keep them clear when I got past thirty.
I noticed one piebald and four or five palominos, some pintos.
There were many foals.
Ross and I were way off the right of the men, on the periphery, with a good view of the whole.
The horses crossed the sand and gravel and waded into the stream up to their fetlocks.
Ripples went out over the water.
I watched their mirror images float up to meet them as they lowered their heads to drink.
The sun was rising; its first rays shot over the canyon walls.
The stallion nipped a mare on the neck.
I zeroed in on the closest dam.
While she drank her little colt snuggled up to nurse on her, clicking his tail.
I had two pictures: that mare and her foal on its spindly legs, and an overall picture of Loca Canyon, the blue-grey colour of its walls and the herd in the partial light, drinking.
The mares were whickering softly; I could nearly feel their soft lips vibrating and their steamy breath.
I completely forgot why I was there, witnessing them; I just watched, watched their muscles and rumps and manes and big eyes, the bunch of them clustered together.
Time slowed down and sped up all at once.
I never thought a thing.
When Jim gave the sign from off to the left, I nodded, like someone had set me on automatic. Beside me Ross melted away, or that’s what it seemed like.
I raised the rifle to my shoulder like I’d watched Dad and Yolana do so many times and I put that mare in my sights and my stiff finger on the trigger.
I think I heard Ross but I don’t know what he said.
I felt his hand grab my elbow as I fired.
I jerked back with the retort.
My bullet, the first fired by anyone, went in.
The horse didn’t realize.
There was no panic.
Her head was raised and her ears twitched, listening, but she never figured it out.
She just turned to the beach and slowly her legs buckled.
I watched her fall.
Ross yanked my gun away.
I still watched.
She hit the sand heaving, her eyes still open.
Blood that looked black bubbled out her mouth.
Her colt nosed at her side, butting her. I heard gunfire.
I felt serene despite the screams and mad buckling of the mustangs and the men’s shouts and the cracks of gunshot.
I just sat and stared at the mare I’d killed.
I’d cut her down.
All the other men and Yolana were moving closer into the fray, some cutting off the horses at the south exit, some plugging downed horses a second time, or orphaned foals.
I didn’t notice Dad anywhere.
I was in a kind of trance when I swung my head around because was shouting. “Stop it!” he cried, running out. I heard Dad cry out, too, and then, distinctly, a gunshot separated off from the rest. Everything went blurry.
The sun was fully up.
I turned to discover who had shot but it was impossible to tell.
Too many men stood armed.
I saw Yolana raise her hand to her mouth.
I turned back to see Ross falling just as the mare had, fluidly, like water, and everywhere men were quitting the slaughter, leaving the live and dead horses and converging on Ross, yelling, blocking my view as Ross sank with a perfect O shaping his mouth. “Mom?” I said quietly, touching her arm. “Dad says to tell you we’re going home now.” We were in the waiting room of the Nickel Springs Hospital.
We had been there all day while Ross was operated on and recovering.
He was going to be okay; the bullet had missed everything vital.
But it was in a dozen bits.
The bullet’s removal, the surgeon said, had been a delicate and nerve-racking procedure.
Now Mom looked up at me with such a cold, wintry anger I started.
She hardly seemed pretty at all.
Susan was curled partly in a chair and partly in her lap, asleep, and Mom had a hand laid on her head.
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