"She's just actin' like a mare," Pepper said. He shook his head sadly like being a mare was a disease that Tempest was bound to catch sometime and I wanted to shove him right out of the saddle.
That was this morning, and thinking about what could have happened to Pepper – and me, if I'd gone to his rescue – makes me shiver, now.
This morning dawned blue and white with a sun that looked like a silver-gold thumbprint in the sky. Wind gusts stabbed through my sheepskin jacket only a couple times as I was feeding, so when Dallas suggested we weren't going to get a better January day for teaching Tempest to pony, I jumped on the chance.
Dallas, as foreman, assigned my riding buddies. Pepper, our youngest cowboy, nicknamed for this red-hair, came along on Jeepers-Creepers. Jeep is a rat-tailed Appaloosa Dad rode a lot before he got Blue Wings, and so he needed the work. I'll tell you the truth; I've never quite trusted Jeep since I saw him take a fall with Dad in the saddle. I should have paid attention to my premonition, but I don't think telling Dallas I felt uneasy would have done any good.
Dallas asked me to ride Popcorn. The albino mustang is one of my favorite horses on the ranch.
My memories of him as an abused and nervous horse are far away, now, since he's about as dependable as horses come.
This turned out to be a really good thing.
So, yeah, Pepper and I were both riding geldings. He was just swaying along, all relaxed in the saddle and I held the rope leading back to Tempest's halter.
Tempest snorted and rolled her eyes, and the geldings just glanced back at her and kept on going, so I guess that's why Pepper came out with the mare remark.
We were coming up on a hillside near the trail to Arroyo Azul and even though we'd just flushed out some sleepy sage grouse which Tempest ignored, now my filly started dancing.
"She's been perfect," I told Pepper. "I think she just hears or smells something these guys don't."
Tempest was a gangly filly now and her black coat had pixilated into frosty silver on the tips of her ears and muzzle. I was pretty sure she'd turn the same moonlight color of her sire instead of buckskin like her mother.
Then Tempest stopped shying and side-stepping. She planted her hooves. Her legs were straight, stiff and unmoving as a four-poster bed.
I clucked at her, and her ears flicked my way. So did Jeep's and Pepper frowned at me.
"You never know how another horse is gonna take that," he scolded me.
I was about to tell him that he wasn't the boss of me, when I noticed Tempest wasn't being stubborn. She was trembling.
I stared at the scoop in the hillside, trying to see it as Tempest did.
Most of the hillside was covered by snags of sagebrush and twisted pinion pine, so that it looked green-tan. But some kind of little slide had exposed a white sandy patch that looked like the beach.
I smiled, thinking of San Francisco's foggy beaches with spots where you could sit and sun yourself.
Sun yourself. I looked at the hillside and the twisted ropey knots of vegetation between the sagebrush. They almost looked like snakes, but any Nevada ranch girl knew that snakes hibernated.
In dens. I'd heard horror stories of rattlesnakes cuddled up, by the torpid, dozing hundreds, to stay warm.
Tempest gave a low half-strangled cry, as if she were trying to neigh and couldn't, for fear.
"Pepper, I don't mean to sound crazy, but what is that, up there?" I pointed and he frowned as he tried to make out what I was showing him, "See? All tangled together like brownish ropes?"
"Beats me," he said, but he was watching Tempest.
Pepper took the rope from his saddle and slipped a loop over Tempest's satiny neck to bring her along between us.
Just then, Popcorn's mustang instincts picked up on what Tempest had been trying to tell him.
Popcorn veered left. Jeep veered right. Tempest reared.
Jeep dragged us all close enough that I saw them.
It was a rattlesnake den. Gray, brown, rust and olive, they had zig-zags of black, triangular heads and yellowish ivory beads – no, rattles!—on their tails. And they were sound asleep.
Except for that one thick-bodied snake about a foot from Jeep's striped front hoof.
Silently, Pepper urged Jeep to back away; at least, I thought that was what he was doing. My eyes were fixed on the hole which seemed to lead to a tunnel or a crevice, and it looked like the side hill had given way, exposing the snakes' winter hideout.
The fat snake near Jeep didn't move so much as flex his muscles.
I knew about that. Somewhere I'd read that snakes have lousy eyesight, but they pick up vibrations on the earth with their muscles and the information went straight to some connection to their jaws.
Must've been true, too, because about then, the snake's thready black tongue, forked and flickering appeared from inside his mouth.
Tempest was already backing, and the geldings answered our signals to do the same.
Don't wake up your friends, I thought, trying to control the snake with brain waves.
We backed the horses, step by head-tossing step, until we were finally out of range. Then we turned them as calmly as we could and rode back toward River Bend.
From a distance, you might've thought Pepper's was covered with white glue; it was that pale and moist.
"Now there's somethin' you don't see everyday," I said, trying to bring him back to his usual self even though I felt myself shivering in reaction to the scare.
"Nope," he said.
We rode in silence, back toward the ranch.
"Guess it's a good thing your filly acted up," he said, finally.
"If by 'acted up,' you mean warned us, yeah," I said.
"Okay," Pepper admitted.
"Or, I guess you could say, she was just acting like a mare," I said, rubbing it in.
"Got the feelin' I'm not gonna hear the end of this one," Pepper grumbled.
And boy, is he ever right.
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