I sat, staring at my Easter dinner in a daze, haunted by vivid images of my packhorse running frantically as she disappeared into the wilderness.
“Pass the ham, please,” my wife, Robin, said for the second time.
A week of sleepless nights and arduous days searching for the filly had taken its toll. I was exhausted. Six inches of fresh snow blanketed the countryside and the forecast called for six more. Today would be the final search and I had the grievous feeling: The filly would remain lost forever.
It was a family tradition to take a long walk after Easter dinner. Today would be no exception. However, this Easter’s walk would be a quest for a lost horse. The filly had been missing for a week; I still wore a burn where she tore the lead rope from my hand.
That fateful day started out as a joy ride through the National Forest. Robin and I rode two seasoned geldings. I lead the young filly outfitted with a packsaddle down the trail. After two miles of weaving through pinon and juniper-covered mesas, we poured onto a sagebrush flat. That is when all hell broke loose.
The filly shot past me like a cannon ball. I tried to hang on to her lead rope, but she was too strong. The rope seared my hand like a branding iron, so I let it go. The filly made a crazed dash for the trees. I watched helplessly as she disappeared into the forest. We searched in vein the remainder of the day. It seemed as though she evaporated into thin air.
After dinner, I warmed up the truck for the thirty-minute drive to the National Forest. Robin, Ryan, and Tyler, donned heavy jackets and snow boots. Today’s walk would be no picnic; It was two-mile hike just to reach the search area.
Driving to the site, I revisited a week of unproductive searches. I feared the filly would entangle her lead rope. Unable to free herself, she would surely starve or be at the mercy of predators.
I turned the truck onto the county road that led to the trailhead. To the west, the sky was black: Ominous snow clouds lurked on the horizon. In a few hours, the winter storm would be upon us. If we did not find her today, I would abandon the search indefinitely.
Rolling down the county road, we approached a small marsh. A thin veil of fog sat suspended above the cattails. As we drew closer, a large blue heron rose from the mist, flying into position just outside the driver’s window.
“Check it out boys”, I said.
The huge bird seemed suspended in flight. It was so close we saw it in splendid detail. Its plumage was perfect, not a feather was out of place. It’s crest and long legs laid back in flight giving it an aerodynamic quality. Its yellow eyes were transfixed. After escorting us for some distance, it veered off over the cab and vanished.
“That means good luck boys,” Robin said. “I’ve got a feeling we are going to find her.”
Arriving at the locked gate, we parked the truck and immediately made tracks up the valley. The storm was baring down on us, and we were running out of time. We focused our search on the sagebrush flats of the valley floor. There we could survey vast tracts of land lying before us.
The landscape was engulfed in a state of calm. The fresh snow muffled all sounds of our approach. There were no signs of life. The forest was quiet, as the day was long.
Our search brought us to the spot where the filly had vanished into the woods. A chilling breeze hit the back of my neck. Black clouds soared by and huge wet flakes began to fall. The storm had arrived.
We immediately fanned out along the tree line, looking for horse tracks. We scoured the ground to no avail. The snow was coming in hard now, the wind driving it straight across. It clung to our clothes and we soon looked like walking snowmen. What little glimmer of hope I had was gone, buried by the snow. Perhaps next fall a hunter would stumble upon a pile of bones beneath a packsaddle; only then would the forest reveal the filly's resting-place.
“We should be heading back,” Robin said.
I walked into the open to scan the horizon one last time, but the blowing snow forbade me from doing so. Turning to rejoin my family, I spied something protruding from the snow. I recognized it immediately. It was a portion of the filly’s lead rope.
“Let’s get out of here while we still can! ” Robin hollered against the wind.
She and the boys had had enough. They were heading back to the truck. I examined the tattered piece of rope. I wondered what the odds were of finding this inanimate clue in this vast landscape. What irony, I thought. I can find a shard of the filly’s rope, but I can't find the filly. It was time to confront the harsh reality: The filly, like the rope, was lying motionless beneath the snow somewhere.
The storm brought a halt to our search. I was walking fast, trying to catch up to the others, when I noticed a lone pine tree standing in the middle of a clearing. Its canopy of branches gave it perfect symmetry. Like the filly, it stood alone, ensconced by wilderness.
Meandering through the sagebrush, I walked over to the tree. Folding the rope in two, I slung the loop over a low hanging branch and pulled the tails through. The wind instantly buffeted the tails and they danced on the breeze as if they were alive. In a moment of solitude, I spoke to myself, “From now on this spot shall be known as the lost horse memorial.”
“Gene…Gene over here!” I heard Robin scream as I turned to leave. I hit the trail at a dead run. The blowing flakes stung my eyes, making it impossible to see. I looked down chasing my family's tracks in the snow. Rounding a bend in the trail, I made out their silhouettes. Robin was pointing in the direction of a small clump of junipers.
I could not believe my eyes, there stood the filly, pack saddle and all.
She perked her ears forward and nickered when she recognized me. She was an apparition in the snow, appearing from nowhere. She had lost considerable weight. I loosened the cinch and removed the pack saddle. Her back and girth were clean. The oversized saddle pad had kept her warm during the storm. I lead her around in a circle, her gait was sound. I was elated.
“Yes!” I said. “Thank God.”
“I told you we were going to find her,” Robin said. “What a great Easter.”
I saddled her back up and the five of us ambled down the trail toward home. The hug wet flakes melted as they hit my face. I hardly noticed them. I was grinning from ear to ear.