"They've spotted horses," Brynna said this afternoon as she reined Penny to a stop.
The blind mare gave a worried nicker. Ace straightened to his full fourteen hand height. Snow crunched as he shifted from hoof to hoof. Then, he shivered. Did he remember that sound from his last day of freedom?
We'd ridden out to shake off the warmth from the house and the fullness from too many holiday cookies.
It was supposed to be a nice break for my stepmother and me, and it was, until we noticed a silver flicker in the sky.
Dull winter sun glinted on the rotors of helicopters hovering like hawks over the Calico Mountains.
Unlike hawks, the helicopters wouldn't be satisfied with a single prey animal.
The stuttering sound of helicopter blades got louder as one machine dropped down to the canyon. The other still hovered, waiting.
I couldn't believe my eyes and neither could Brynna.
"What are they thinking?" I asked her, because once Brynna had been the manager of the BLM's wild horse program at Willow Springs.
"Fewer horses will escape if they have to run through this deep snow," Brynna said, looking up, "They'll be less nimble than the choppers. Backtracking and ducking out of sight will be tougher."
Brynna was right.
Frightened out of their snug canyon, the wild horses tried to outrun the helicopters.
Bays and sorrels, one yellow dun and a single black mare with a silver-gray foal galloped our way.
A dark reddish horse seemed to be the boss.
The lead mare, I thought. She snapped at stragglers and curved her body through the nine horse band. But the heavy, wet snow dragged even her movements to slow motion.
The black mare lagged behind the others. Were her legs numb from cold or was her awkward gait an attempt not to fling accidental snowballs into the face of her foal?
"All that power and expense for nine horses," Brynna said, still looking up.
She shook her head, thinking, I guess, about the budgets and accounts she'd kept when she managed Willow Springs for BLM. She knew it cost a lot more to put a helicopter -- let alone two of them! -- in the air.
And we both knew the Willow Springs corrals were already full with dull-eyed, fuzzy coated mustangs, waiting for whatever came next.
"We've got to help," I said. Ace tightened at the feel of me shifting forward.
"No," Brynna's arm flashed out, holding me back. "They've got a better chance of staying on their hooves without us getting in the mix."
Louder, lower, the second helicopter descended, then hung suspended behind the black mare and her foal.
Even through my saddle, I felt Ace tremble.
The redwood brown lead mare circled back for the stragglers.
"What's she doing with such a little baby this time of year?" Brynna asked herself. "Was he born real late or too early?"
The foal's mouth was agape and foamy. His wide nostrils were pink from exertion.
He threw his fragile black legs ahead of him, trying to run, though he'd probably just learned to walk.
Where was the herd stallion? I didn't know this band of horses, but it was rare for mustangs to be without a male leader, too. Had they already captured him? Had be been injured in an earlier round-up? Things weren't the same at Willow Springs since Brynna had left.
Enraged that her band had been split in two, the lead mare let the front runners run on through the man-made blizzard, and circled back for the black mare and foal.
She nipped the foal's rump and he cried out.
"It's okay, girl." Brynna put her hand on Penny's neck, because the blind mare could only imagine what was happening.
But it wasn't okay.
Pushing his prey up to join the other horses, the helicopter pilot dropped even lower. I couldn't see his shadow, black on the snow, beneath him.
The mare sprinted to the right, forcing her way through deep snow, where no trail had been broken by the others.
The chopper followed and the colt found himself trapped, chest-deep in drifts.
He rocked his weight backward and struck out with his front legs, pulling himself free and calling to his mother.
Blinded by flurries of rotor-driven snowflakes, the colt took a few running steps, tripped, somersaulted and lay still.
When his mother slowed, the lead mare gave her a savage bite, then forced her to run on.
"Now!" Brynna said, as the horses swung North and the helicopters banked after them, leaving the foal alone.
We reached the fallen foal in seconds. He lay on his side, head under a frost-silver pinion pine.
I swung out of the saddle, crooning to the baby. "We won't hurt you." Then I turned to Brynna and said, "He's alive."
"For now," she told me, and then a male shout made her look back over her shoulder.
Dad must have heard the helicopters and come to make sure we were all right. He loped toward us on Blue Wings, and I could see the blue roan and white mustang was fighting him every step of the way.
Dad slowed Blue to a jog as they approached. Both Ace and Penny snorted prolonged greetings and I wondered what they were telling him about what had happened. Were they bewildered at how our kind and stood by while their kind suffered?
As he drew rein, Dad's hand fell to the rifle scabbard on his saddle.
"No," I said, not emotional or loco, just no.
Dad acted like he didn't hear me. He just dismounted, ground-tied Blue and squatted next to the steel gray foal. His hands moved over it, then he took a deep break and looked after the herd, after the foal's mother and family.
"What do you think?" Brynna asked.
Dad stood and said, "I think the only thing tougher than ending a life that's just got started, is makin' it suffer an orphan's death in the desert."
"That's not going to happen," I told him. "No way."
So, both of them tried to discourage me, but they didn't get very far.
I put on the tough-as-leather look I learned from Dad and stood up to them. Not for me, but for that left-behind baby.
It took a while to get the colt settled.
That's why this blog is being written in the middle of the night. The colt's in the barn now, snug in deep straw, with Tempest asking him all kinds of horse questions.
"Don't get attached to him," I told my filly. "He's going right back out on the range, as soon as he's strong enough to join with the wild ones."
That's why I haven't named him.
I feel tired, but I feel good, and I know that this one small horse will never need a human name. It's enough for him to be called Mustang.