Twas the night before…
He checked the time again; not an easy maneuver as he had to take his right glove off, shove the left cuff of his parka up, peel back the wrist band of his left glove and then hit the back-light button on his Casio $19.99 special. Only bought the stupid thing because of the digital thermometer feature it offered and now he wished it didn’t have it as it chilled his insides just looking at the numbers, 33 degrees inside the protection of his parka.
The shivering cold almost kept him from observing the time, 2148 hrs; he thought that was what it said eons ago. If it weren’t for the seconds blinking and counting down he would have sworn that the watch had frozen and no longer worked. He tapped the crystal just for good measure and recoiled a bit as the tip of his index finger reverberated with pain from the simple move. Almost frost bitten he readjusted his left sleeve and hurriedly put his right glove back on.
‘Rotten cold’ he thought. Brought back memories of sleeping in ditches in Afghanistan in the dead of winter, thoughts he could have lived without.
He stomped the ground, gave himself a big bear hug and began walking towards the compound’s gate.
‘Maybe walking will generate some heat, besides, I wonder what that stranger is up to on top of the ridge. Better check the gate to make sure everything is secure.’
His feet crunched on the thin layer of snow that blanked the darkened world. One solitary utility light blazed above the cramped trailer office but with the snow it was bright enough to see down the drive to the compound’s gate some 75 yards away. The drive was bordered on both sides by holding pens with extra tall fencing. They were deathly quiet, tonight but that would change in a few days when the “gather” started.
He picked up his pace towards the gate as he was anxious to put the glare of the light behind him so that he could see better in the dark. Earlier in the evening he had seen headlights crest the hill to the north and head towards the compound. The two lights slowed just a few hundred yards from the gate and then blinked out. He could tell that the vehicle was a diesel as he could hear the rumble of the beast idling but now all was silent. He hadn’t seen it depart and knowing that someone or something was lurking in the dark, watching, unnerved him.
He shivered as he walked, not so much from the cold but from the deadly memories that overtook him. In his mind images of darkness, glinting movement and the flash of a mortar rocket launch exploded in his head. He shook himself, again, in a successful effort to bring himself back to the reality of the moment and found himself sweating in the cold. He just could not shake Afghanistan from his life, not that he wasn’t trying. He was now home with his wife, she wanted to start a family, his father wanted him to take over the family business and the VA had helped him find this job with the Bureau of Land Management but the gun on his hip and acting as a guard still conjured up demons that were best left in the dark.
He reached the gate and came to a stop. All was quiet, he hadn’t realized how noisy the snow had been as it crunched under his boots but now while standing still he could hear absolutely nothing, except his own heart beating, nothing else.
Then he heard a sound, a click or a crack like someone stepping on a stick. Instinctively, he dropped to a squat, pulled out his side arm and aimed in the direction of the sound. It all happened so fast, so smooth, so finely orchestrated that he actually startled himself in his reaction more than from hearing the sound.
“Whoa now”, came a deep voice from across the gate, “I don’t think you will be needing any firearms, tonight”.
He slowly stood and lowered his hand gun but continued to stare into the darkness from where the voice had emerged.
“Who are you and what are you doing?” he demanded.
“My name is of no importance and I am simply observing, thinking, pondering and maybe even praying.” The voice replied.
“This is Federal property and you have no business being here, particularly at this time of night.”
There came a small chuckle from the darkness, “I beg to differ. This Federal land is public land and I am the public. Secondly, I am not crossing any fence line nor am I within your compound so as I see it, I am out of your jurisdiction.”
“Fair enough,” the guard replied as he deftly holstered his fire arm on his right and reached for a holster on his left.
“I said no fire arms”, charged the voice with and obvious elevation in intensity.
“No gun, just a light” and with a smart click a beam of searing light tore across the cold Nevada night and lit up the snow covered desert.
His aim was good and true and if it had been a gun, instead of a torch, the stranger would have been shot dead through the heart as he was centered directly in the focused light beam.
The stranger quickly put one gloved hand up to shield his eyes.
“Alright already, kill the theater lights you are ruining my night vision”, the stranger exclaimed, “A little bit of a warning would have been nice.”
The guard’s trained eyes quickly accessed the stranger; relatively trim, tall, worn boots, jeans, parka, rancher gloves, scarf, black Tom Mix style hat with a colorful Indian beaded headband, glasses glinted from under the brim, white beard, a shock of white hair visible from behind the neck and a large thermos mug in the right hand. His brain registered; ‘Minimal threat’.
He lowered the light so that it illuminated the snowy ground half way between them and in the diffused light from below they were both cast into a curious world of unnatural shadows.
The stranger had been leaning against the outside of the large hinge post for the galvanized gate. He had straightened up when the light nearly blinded him so now he walked forward and stood directly opposite the guard at the center of the gate.
“What’s you name?” the guard asked with an edge in his tone.
The stranger took a sip from his covered mug, sighed and in so doing let out of cloud of steam. He paused for a moment as if carefully considering his answer before he replied.
“My name is not important, but it is important for you know that I am an advocate, an advocate for the Wild Horses and Burros. I am here to witness the atrocity that is about to befall this herd that deserves to be left alone.”
“So in a nutshell you are a nut case.” the guard scoffed. He was warned about these types, in fact that was why he was here, on Christmas Eve, to ensure that these horse hugging, weirdo liberals did not do any property damage to the horse holding compound. He had been told by BLM management that they had creditable evidence that the gather was going to be disrupted by civil disobedience which could include property damage, protests, 4-wheelers, you name it. These crazies were Eco-terrorists and as a decorated veteran, he was the perfect man to protect his country’s property. Not that he bought all the hype but he sure could use the time and a half for Christmas Eve and the double time that he would receive once the clock clicked over to midnight. He was trying to start a new life with a wife that he had not seen in two years and the added money would help to make her smile. But on the other side of the coin, he had not been with her on Christmas since they were married a little over two short years ago, before his deployment. That thought stung his heart and he struggled to bring himself back to the moment. He fought the urge to look at his watch again.
“If that’s what you want to call me, nutcase will work as I have been called worse.” the stranger countered, “In reality the horses call me Grey Mane so if you need a name you can call me G.M. for short.”
“Sure, so G.M. what’s your business here, in the middle of the night?”
“Just watching and listening”, the advocate mused. “You know, one of the bands of wild horses is just over that ridge to the west, only about half a mile from where you are standing. It’s a bright and thriving group. Ten family members in all including the stallion, mares and foals. I was sitting up there observing their serenity in the moonlight, thinking about how they only have a few hours left to live, to live free as a family, to live on the land that the U.S. Congress gave them before your agency will meanly drive them into a trap and rip their family apart and shatter their freedom forever. That’s what I was doing.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the guard. He was beginning to fidget a bit as the strangers word seemed to drill down to his soul and he did not know why but it made him very uncomfortable. The confidence and sincerity in which the stranger spoke was extremely unnerving.
“Do you mean you do not know?”
“I don’t have a clue about what you are saying, besides you still have not answered my question.”
“How long have you worked for the BLM?”
“That’s not important nor is it any of your business, just tell me why you are here.”
“No problem there, I am here to witness for the horses. I will log, photograph, document and note everything that occurs. I will be a presence of compassion and resistance for all that is happening. Perhaps I will stand alone as I do now or maybe I will be joined by others. It doesn’t matter as long as someone is here. So if you really don’t know what’s afoot, here, I gauge your employment to be under 90 days.”
That last observation caught the guard unprepared, so much so that he almost dropped the light as the stranger was spot on. He hadn’t been back from the war more than 90 days and had only collected three pay checks from his new job. He would hit 60 days after the first of the year, next week.
With a bit of a quiver in his voice the guard continued:
“That’s all nonsense, what the BLM is doing is good management. If they did not capture all of these horses they would starve to death and die. This is an act of humanity and a proper response from our government. You can’t just leave all these horses out here to fend for themselves, they need proper care.”
There was an extended pause from the stranger, he lowered his head, put his right hand to his chin then looked straight ahead at the guard;
“I ask for the right to revise my earlier estimate, 60 days or less, that’s the amount of time that you have been exposed to the BLM, right?.”
“What the hell are you talking about, man?” snapped the guard. Clear desperation could be heard in his voice and seen in his stance.
“No worries; let me ask you a question. What are you doing for the next couple of hours?” the stranger asked and through the low lighting a smile could be detected between the white beard and mustache.
“Guarding this place from the likes of you, I reckon.” The guard answered but even though he was flustered the tone of the stranger had a calming and settling effect upon his jangled nerves. ‘How did he know’, he mused.
“How about a hot, maybe warm, cup of coffee?” the advocate asked.
“Not out of the same mug I hope.”
The stranger smiled, again, “No I have a full thermos. Now I am going to reach into my parka very slowly for the thermos so don’t draw your gun.”, there was a bit of a giggle in his voice.
The advocate pulled out from under his coat a personal sized, stainless steel thermos and handed it across the gate to the guard.
“You don’t have any poison mixed in there do you?”
“Depends upon what your definition of poison is. If you consider Bailey’s Irish Cream to be poison then consider that laced coffee to be extremely dangerous. Otherwise, it might just warm up your innards.”
They both laughed a little and it became obvious that the chill between them was beginning to melt by a degree or two.
The guard poured a copious amount of hot coffee into the top of the thermos and went to hand it back to the advocate who quickly waved him off.
“No, that’s for you, my coffee mug’s meter is still pegged at full. Now, back to our discussion about horses, let me give you a little bit of background. A little conversation will warm up my facial muscles while that coffee warms you up from inside out.”
The advocate stepped forward, leaned on the gate and began to speak in low and gentle tones. He took the guard back to Mustang Annie and the unanimous passage of the ROAM act which guaranteed the wild horses and burros a place to live. He told of the gradual erosion of the law perpetuated by the guard’s employer. He talked of the grazing leases, of private cattle out numbering wild horses 400 to 1. He pulled out his iPhone and showed pictures of fat, plump and happy wild horses. He showed movies of the horror and brutality of helicopter driven stampedes and the failure of the BLM to follow the law and listen to the will of the people. He told him of the lies, of BLM management speaking to the world of how transparent and open the BLM would be while horses were found shot to death as a secret gather was taking place. The guard learned that the thousands of horses that would be pulled from his area would be the end of the herd, the end of hundreds of years of free life, the destruction of one of the most unique wild communities in the United States. The guard heard that the captured horses could go to slaughter as so many before them had been butchered and wasted as food for foreign diners.
And the guard learned that the advocate was not very different from the likes of himself. His late night mentor was a veteran of earlier conflicts, he had a life, a job, a family and aspirations just as the guard did. But the advocate also had convictions and the drive to stand up for what he felt to be right and for that the guard respected him as he knew the value of conviction and duty. He understood it well.
The spell of the advocate’s stories was broken by the electronic buzzing from the guard’s watch.
“What’s that?” the advocate asked.
“My alarm, I set it to notify me when I went into double time.”
“So it’s midnight?”
“Yup, midnight it is.”
“Then I would like to wish you a heartfelt Merry Christmas, my friend.” said the advocate as he extended a gloved hand over the gate.
The guard quickly clasp his hand in his and used his left hand to grab the advocates wrist, they heartily pumped each other’s arm up and down.
Reluctantly they released the other’s hand and stared across the gate in a clumsy silence when a sound to the west caught both of their attention. They spun around to look up at the ridge.
While they had talked the full moon had begun to rise and was now just cresting the top of the ridge and as they looked for the sound that had interrupted their respite the lone silhouette of a wild horse arose over the ridge and stood clearly against the light of the moon.
They both stared as the magnificent figure gazed down upon them as the wind danced through it’s mane and tail. While they were held transfixed; small, miniature ice crystals began to fall and lent a twinkling surreal atmosphere to the scene. The tiny flakes came not from the clouds but from mountain tops far away, carried by the wind to fall upon their vision.
Far to the right of moon and over the horse a star pulsated and twinkled like a beacon and without any forewarning the shadow horse disappeared leaving only the sound of falling stones and a brief whirlwind of snow. It was gone.
Neither of the men knew how long they had stood there until the guard broke the silence without mentioning what had just happened.
“You going back to town, tonight?”
It took the advocate a moment to answer as he turned to the guard who was still looking up the ridge at the moon.
“Yes, I want to catch a few winks at the motel and be back here by first light. Want to ensure that no chopper takes off early. I know the date is a few days away but time, date, month, year; it all means nothing to your employer.”
“Not my employer, not anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gun, badge and ID card are being left on the desk in the trailer. If you will give me a ride I will pick up my backpack and hitch a lift with you back to town. Don’t live too far from the motel.”
“Well certainly, but what about your job?”
“That’s just it; it’s a job and not my life. As an American I cannot work for nor represent something that is so foul and corrupt. I am a veteran and this agency shames me.”
“But what will your wife and family say?”
“Hopefully; Merry Christmas. I will finally give my father the answer he has been waiting for, taking over the family feed store that he has wanted me to do for years. And my wife, I will have Christmas dinner with her tomorrow, something I have not done since we were married in a rush prior to my deployment to Afghanistan. That will be two Christmas presents in one.”
“I should think so”, smiled the advocate.
“But there is one more to give, to give to the horses.” added the guard. “I would like to come out here with you in the morning to help you watch and to listen to what you have to say. I would like to witness for the horses if you would have me.”
The advocate slowly leaned over, set his now empty mug in the snow and reached across the gate, “It would be an honor, my friend, and absolute honor”, and the two men embraced each other across the cold, galvanized gate yet they only felt a burning warmth from within.
“I’ll go drop off my vitals and get my bag, it will only take a second.” said the guard as he spun around and started to walk away.
“Hey”, called the advocate, “Aren’t you the least bit worried about leaving this place unguarded.” there was a touch of laughter in his voice.
“Not if the terrorists are a bunch of Bailey’s drinking thugs like you.” laughed the guard as his shadow grew longer with each step towards the trailer. “Just hold on.”
The advocate smiled to himself and stomped his feet to get the blood flowing back through his near frozen toes.
He stood there for a moment and allowed his spirit to bask in the warm afterglow of recent events.
He turned, again, to look up the ridge where the horse had stood only moments before. In that short lapse of time the moon had moved higher in the sky dragging the shining star with it but there was no hint of the horse.
He looked at the star, listened to the wind and noted that the star was brighter and more active in it’s pulsing than it was earlier. As he gazed upwards it came to him that another birth was being celebrated this clear, cold Christmas morning; the impact of that realization pushed a warm tear from his eye, down his ruddy cheek and into his beard.
His internal realization manifested itself onto his lips in the form of a big smile and he whispered as much to the Spirit as he did to himself.
“Thank you for the goodness that was born this day and for a new birth, a new beginning for another kind and gentle spirit. Thank you for an additional voice for the wild ones, another guardian of their spirit. Thank you for the new advocate.”
The wind answered with a swirl of snow, a twinkle of a star and the call of a wild horse many miles away.
He smiled in return.