Jessi sat contentedly in Jake Nez Winter’s warm, quiet presence as he drove into mustang country on the road that would get her closest to where she’d last seen a “missing” stallion.
_____When not at work, Jessi practically lived with the wild horses. She knew each band, the stallions, mares, and foals, and, except for the oldest mustangs, also ages and lineages. All from hiking and riding this great Nevada basin from one mountain swell to another, binoculars, copious field notes, and sketches her documentation tools.
_____While at a glance the landscape looked simple and serene, it was rough, rugged, and remote, no paved roads nearby, dirt roads only near the perimeter, a few old two-tracks dissolving into the high desert. Drainages started in the mountains, wind and water slowly eroding volcanic remains into twisted sculptures, mazes, and hidden havens. Although the horses did not intentionally hide, they could easily disappear. Sometimes, though, bad things happened.
_____As Jake’s truck bumped along the perimeter road, Jessi said, “The doctor told me I can’t ride for three more weeks.” He’d also said to abstain from sex for at least that long, which Jessi didn’t mention. Jake was basically just a friend, who happened to be there when she miscarried.
_____Navigating potholes, Jake said, “That’s tough.”
_____She was glancing up at the low, heavy sky when the truck stopped abruptly. Jake reached for his fieldglasses. Hers immediately to her eyes. Movement dark as shadow in the far junipers. The windshield interrupted her vision so she stepped out into the cold, resting her elbows on the warm hood, scanning trees and rock forms, her breath clouding her binoculars. She cussed and kept searching.
_____“Let’s go,” Jake said, the diesel motor rumbling deep in its throat, and though Jessi wanted to walk not drive, she climbed back inside. Jake had his window down to see better, chilled air filling the cab.
_____The truck crept. She could have walked faster. Which might have spooked horses she couldn’t see. Like the dark one, now disappeared.
_____It started snowing. Big, fat, wet flakes. “Shit,” they both said. The road would get slick quickly in this kind of snow.
_____“Keep going,” Jessi said. She had to know which horse that was. If it was him.
_____“If we get stuck, we’re here till it freezes.” The voice of reason, like her dad’s.
_____“We’ve got food and a blanket.” The voice of unreason, her dad used to say.
_____Jake stopped again, the pickup idling. Weighing an answer.
_____“We could walk,” she said. Walking then climbing around the big basalt boulders, safe with rattlesnakes still in hibernation, might infuse some energy into her tired state. Seeing the stallion would be the best thing.
_____She knew how far it was across the valley. Without snow and mud it could take well over an hour one way, more with weather underfoot. The dark horse could be long gone by the time they reached where he’d been, snow covering his tracks.
_____“Maybe you stay here and I’ll go,” Jake said.
_____“I want to go, too.” She heard the pout in her voice.
_____“It looks flat but it’s not an easy hike. There are steep arroyos.”
_____“I know that,” Jessi snapped.
_____Jake turned and looked at her straight. Reached across and touched her face. Jessi leaned into his hand, craving the warmth. His palm cupped her jawbone, his thumb brushing across her lips. Jessi felt the annoying urge to cry.
_____“The doctor told you not to ride. Hiking out here is probably more strenuous. I can get over there and back in two hours, tops. Fire the truck up whenever you start to get cold. There’s plenty of fuel.” He looked at the clock on the dash. “If I’m not back by 2, leave. I can walk out easier than pushing the truck.”
_____He was right, the doctor would not want her tromping through mud and snow. Jake turned around and parked on a slope so they could get a running start if necessary, and left at a jog, his daypack flogging him as he skirted bunchgrasses and sagebrush, graceful as a deer, an elk. A mustang. Jessi closed her eyes. Sadness slipped in to fill the space he had occupied, cold quickly following. She felt the uncontrollable urge to return to the deep sleep of winter.
_____She meant to wake up when he reached the far side, to watch and identify any mustangs emerging from the trees. But, “Jesus, Jessi.” Jake’s hand touched her cheek, his breath puffing out in little clouds. “You’re cold as ice.” She lay curled up on the reclined seat, the blanket slipped to the floor. Jake reached across her and turned on the ignition, cranking the heater up high, pushing buttons in her door. Seat-warmer buttons.
_____“Get out,” he said. She shook her head.
_____“Not a choice,” pulling her up and toward the door. She resisted but he got her outside, put his own jacket over hers, and maneuvered her along the snow-covered dirt road. Four inches had fallen. “You should have gone. I should not have left you alone.”
_____“Sleep,” she said.
_____“Move.” He pushed her from behind.
_____It hurt, blood flowing again into her cold feet. She felt warmth come to her, though, from somewhere near her groin. It moved down her inner thigh. She wondered if she’d just peed herself.
_____“Oh God,” Jake said. He picked all of her up and ran the steps back to the truck, nearly throwing her inside, tucking the blanket around her and slamming the door and leaping around the truck and inside all in one movement, and then he drove, accelerating as fast as he dared down the slope and up the next one, the truck whipping in the snow, slipping and sliding and tearing up the road the way they both hated people to do, ruts lasting forever in this country, and he did not stop when he reached the pavement fourteen miles later, just drove faster.
_____Jessi was asleep.
Flash Fiction by Kathryn Wilder
Photograph by TJ Holmes
May 2021 marks the release of Kathryn Wilder’s memoir, Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West, about the mustangs who inspired “Missing.” Wilder has an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado. Desert Chrome can be found at https://www.torreyhouse.org/desert-chrome, or your favorite indie bookstore.