I blinked hard against the glare. Smoke from the wildfire lay heavy across the valley, a murky haze choking my eyes and throat, intensified by ripples of heat radiating from the sun-bleached rocks. I raised a hand to my brow to shield my eyes as I tried once more to peer into the distance. Nothing. A mirage of shadows shimmered around me, but no bird song, no trickle of water, no sigh of air loosened the heavy texture of the silence. I took another sip of tepid water from my canteen, then continued my trek through the chalky dust.
The trail wound down into a shallow draw, and I hugged the side where there was a sliver of shade, clinging to the illusion that it provided any real respite. Where was he? I fought back the slideshow of possible disasters that had been playing on auto-repeat inside my head for the past few hours since the phone call. The fire had turned, ripping unexpectedly through what we thought was a safe zone, and he was missing. I couldn’t let my mind go there. I wouldn’t!
I paused to take a few deep breaths, fighting back the insidious grip of those evil fingers that were crushing my heart, closing my ears to the sneering whispers of doom, and I steeled myself against the possibility of what I might find as I clambered out of the draw back into the open desert plain.
I pushed on. Where was he? Was I about to make a grisly discovery that would stop my heart in an instant of searing pain, resuming with the next breath in the agony of knowing life would then forever hold an aching emptiness of loss? I would not submit to this terror of anticipation.
He had been so mischievous as a youngster that I jokingly called him my little devil. As he grew up, his knack for getting into trouble matured into the calculated risk-taking of leadership, but the nickname stuck. If there was any grace to a name, surely a devil could survive the flames of that hellish wildfire.
My canteen was nearly empty. I moistened my cracked lips with a few drops of water, then gasped as I felt a subtle shift in the air. Raising my head, I squinted once again into the smoky glare. And with jarring suddenness, a bold breeze struck my face. Within minutes, the wind was swirling around me, and fat raindrops began to beat down the acrid pall. I raised my arms and turned my face to the sky, embracing the downpour.
The storm passed. Wiping water out of my eyes, I surveyed the glistening landscape. No longer swaddled in reeking fire fumes, the valley sparkled as a finger of sunlight slipped from beneath retreating clouds. And as I gazed with fresh hope into its fading light, I froze at the sound of rhythmic cadence. I spun around, heart leaping, and there he was, dashing towards me at a swift canter, his tail streaming in the wind like a battle-tattered yet triumphant flag — my companion and friend, flame of my soul, magnificent prince of the plains — Diablo, Stallion of Sand Wash Basin.
Author’s Note: My husband and I recently celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary. Between Covid-19 and the wildfires, our typical anniversary get-away was curtailed to adventures closer to home. We roamed the back country for most of a day, crawling along rocky 4-wheel drive roads searching for wild mustangs, and in spite of the smoky air, we were not disappointed. I freely admit to being under the influence of the countless hours of my childhood spent devouring every horse story that I could get my hands on. As I was sorting and editing my photos from the day, the images pulled this microstory into being.
Visit my gallery if you’d like to see more of these wild mustangs.
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I relied on the fantastically detailed records of the wild mustang community kept by photographer Nadja Rider to identify this stallion.