She loved horses, even if she didn’t know a thing about them, not stallions from scallions or Appaloosas from applesauce. Every night after her father went to bed and she was certain she heard his snores, she snuck out her bedroom window and walked down the dirt road under the desert moonlight to her neighbor’s corral and unlatched the gate.
He would be waiting for her, a big black Arabian gelding, though she didn’t know what kind of horse he was, didn’t know his name, didn’t know how valuable he was, and didn’t even know his owners. She just she knew she disliked them. The horse would be pacing impatiently by the gate, and he’d whinny when he smelled her, and stomp and snort with anticipation when he saw her push past the overgrown palo verde tree between the gate and the road.
Frida would shhh and whisper to calm him, run her hand down his big snout, then let him follow her down the road. Sometimes she’d bring her little dog; the damn thing barked all day long, but somehow he knew he was part of a bigger conspiracy on these late-night jaunts and he’d never let out a peep. And when the girl thought they were all out of earshot of the house, she’d clamber awkwardly onto the horse’s back, grab a handful of mane, and gallop him down to the cottonwoods by the river with the dog running alongside and skirting the bushes for scents.
As a girl, Frida only did what she wanted to, and that had gotten her sent off to Arizona to live with her father. He was a cop. Her mother divorced him because he was such an inflexible hardass, but when she found she couldn’t control Frida anymore, she felt that a supercop dad might be just what the girl needed.
It wasn’t. What she needed was a sign from within, any kind of sign at all, that might tell her something, anything about something or anything.
She grew up alone with her mother in Chicago. Her father moved straight out of state after the divorce, thinking like most new Arizonans, that his problems wouldn’t follow him there, so far away from Chicago’s crowds and smog and winter weather. He’d been a Chicago police officer, so he had no problem signing on as a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy. He didn’t even have to spend time in any office, because his beat was to drive the empty roads of North Scottsdale, most of them unpaved in the days before the state sold all the land--and the politicians’ souls--to developers who turned it into red-tile-roof hell. He bought a piece of desert while he still could, however, and built a little house at the end of Dynamite Road, where Scottsdale feathered into the Tonto National Forest. He parked his patrol car in front of the house, and unless he had to bring a suspect to jail or testify in court in downtown Phoenix, his only coworkers were voices on the radio.
When he moved there, his neighbors were ranchers, but they got old and sold out, and the retirees, mostly Californians, moved in. They kept to themselves except to accuse their neighbors and point fingers at strangers. So he lived in isolation until Frida came.
Frida grew up in the city he left, and grew up fast. She knew how to look self-assured as she walked from school to her mother’s downtown apartment. By the time she was 16, she’d figured out how to look a man in the eye and make him wilt. She seemed older than she was, and because she was beautiful, no one ever had the nerve to say “no” to her.
After she graduated from high school, Frida told her mother she’d had enough of education for a while, and any day now she was going to find a job.
That was what she said because that’s what her mother wanted to hear. In reality, she had no such plans, and when her mother started to press the issue, she just altered her schedule. The mother worked in an office in the Loop, left the apartment at seven in the morning and didn’t get home until seven at night. So it was easy for the girl to be asleep when her mother left for work, and to be gone when she came back at night.
Frida had no trouble getting into the clubs even though she was well underage. She could glare or smile her way past any doorman in town. The younger boys never thought they had a chance with her--and in fact they didn’t--and the older boys--who probably didn’t either--would just smile back and let her through the door.
Late one night, her mother woke up and smelled something burning, and went into her living room to find Frida smoking a joint with two enormous men wearing Super Bowl rings. She was still eighteen.
“What were you thinking?” the mother screamed later.
She wasn’t thinking anything. She never thought, and she didn’t plan on starting, and she said so. Mom shipped her to Arizona.
Frida was not impressed, and her dad was probably less able than any other man to set limits. Tough as he had been on her mother, he melted in front of his daughter--so smart, so beautiful--and she filled his empty house. She could just sit by the pool and work on her sun tan for all he cared. And if she played the piano for him--somehow she had managed to put some discipline into that--he’d let her get away with anything.
He had a pair of big, obsequious Labrador retrievers--“the main dogs,” he called them--and a tiny one, no bigger than a plush-toy stuffed animal, which he called “the auxiliary dog.” The big ones were bounding and genial. The little one was a cross between a Maltese and a Yorkshire terrier, two breeds of large dogs trapped in a small dog’s body. It looked sort of like Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street” and sort of like the mechanical gopher in the movie “Caddyshack.” It was as assertive and unafraid as the girl was--though there was plenty for it to be afraid of out there in the desert--snakes and owls and lions and coyotes--but, like the girl, it did what it wanted to, and what it wanted to do was follow her everywhere.
Frida had discovered the horses in her first week in Arizona. She was walking down to the river past their so-called pasture—though there was barely enough grass to really call it a pasture--and, social beings that they are, three of the horses ran arrogantly up to the fence.
They seemed impressed that she was unafraid, and hung their big faces over the top rail. She accepted the invitation and reached out and stroked the big one between the eyes, right down to his quivering black lips. She was smitten, and the big horse, like every male she’d ever known, stood still for her.
“Don’t touch the haws-ses!”
The voice came from the other side of the corral. An elderly woman strode up to the fence. She had honey-blond hair, a face pulled tight either from facelifts or from the overwhelming tightness of the sphincters in her ass. The girl thought she was about seventy, and for the first time in her life, she was almost intimidated.
“This is private proppity, honey,” the woman barked. She was done up in cowgirl chic clothing, but her voice and her manner were urban. Frida identified the accent as city, but she couldn’t tell which city it came from.
The lady lectured for a few moments longer. Frida just stared back. The long and short of the tirade was that she had better not come back or the old lady would call the police.
Frida walked away chuckling, because her father was the police, and because she didn’t much care what some old face-lifted hag in a denim skirt told her she could or couldn’t do.
She came back that night.
The horses were still there. She laughed when they trotted over to the fence, and the big black seemed almost to laugh with her. She stayed an hour at least, just stroking his nose and the long curve of his neck.
After a few weeks, she got up the nerve to climb over and walk among the horses. The black Arabian stayed at her side, and they took turns steering each other around the corral. It was weeks more until she dared climb up on him.
She’d brought her dog with her that night. He wasn’t sure--his big ears stayed on full alert--but he trusted her judgment. The black horse sidled up alongside the fence, as if to get his flanks rubbed, or to rub them against the fence, but Frida took it as an invitation. She climbed right up the fence rails, and when the horse didn’t spook, she reached a leg over and sat gently down on his back.
This was too much for the little dog to take, and he let out a fusillade of barks as rapid as a string of penny firecrackers. A light went on in the house, a window opened. Frida quickly slid from the horse back to the fence and then to the ground, picked up the dog to calm him, and ran home.
The next night she came back alone. The horse was already by the fence, as if he expected her. She liked that. And this time, she climbed quickly up the fence and onto his big back. He stood still a moment and then started to canter around the corral. She wasn’t sure how to hang on--she’d never been on a horse before. She put a hand on each side of his neck and bounced with his every step, but it struck her so funny that she couldn’t stop giggling.
Night after night she rode. The dog accepted this, and he slipped under the fence and learned to dodge hooves. One night, Frida unlatched the gate before she mounted up. The horse took her cue and carried her out of the corral and down the road into the mesquite bosque that ran all the way to the river.
With each ride they ventured farther and farther away from the corral, on dirt roads and narrow trails, into the river to the other side, she with her hair flying behind her and one hand wound into the horse’s mane, riding until the sun came up, then sneaking back to bed and sleeping until late afternoon.
They had adventures: Usually when they saw vehicles parked on forest roads, they’d also see their owners, asleep and naked in backseats, or still furtively making love in the beds of pickup trucks, trying to finish before morning. She identified with them, because she, too, had to get her new love back home before his mistress discovered he was cheating on her.
But one morning, the trucks parked down by the Verde held other delights. She rode in on them and startled a band of seven or eight Mexican nationals who’d spent the night drinking and using their own beer cans for target practice. She’d already turned the horse to run when she saw the gun come up, a long pistol at the end of an arm pointing right at her. The cylinder was empty, but the clicks of the gun’s hammer dry firing rang in her ears as loud as any real gunshot, and she felt exhilarated, almost aroused. She leaned forward onto the horse’s neck and felt his sides and his back muscles between her legs as he ran through the desert. Together they could get away with--and away from--anything.
It was late August, and it had been raining for a week, so the thunder and lightning kept her in at night, laying in bed, sweaty with the window open, hoping the weather would break and she could go riding.
When the skies finally cleared and the moon came out, the temperatures were still in the high nineties at midnight. She put on her bikini top and a pair of shorts and pulled on her running shoes. Then she and the little dog burst out the window like two beasts escaping from a cage and ran wild and crazy-legged for the corral. She led the horse out the gate, climbed on and raced for the river.
The water was running at flood levels, higher than she’d ever seen it, but she was determined to cross it, anyway.
She jumped down to a sandbar and sat down to take off her shoes and tie their laces together to throw around her neck. If the horse had to swim her across the river, she’d get them wet, and she figured she might need dry shoes on the other side.
The dog had sniffed his way around the creosote bushes. Now she heard him growling deep in his throat, and when she looked for him, she saw he was staring down a coyote as big as a German shepherd. It was easily five times his size, but the little dog was too full of himself to realize that he was on the menu for breakfast. Frida shouted and waved her arms. The coyote stood his ground, so she picked up a flat rock--the kind you want and can’t find when you’re skimming stones on the river, she thought--and whirled it sidearm at the coyote. It caught him behind the ear, and he yelped and disappeared into the brush.
The horse was waiting at the water’s edge. Frida whistled for the dog and he jumped into her arms and onto the horse’s neck as quick as a combination shot. She climbed up behind him and nosed the horse into the river.
The rocks on the river bottom rolled with a hollow clacking sound beneath the horse’s hooves. He stumbled a bit in the swift current. He couldn’t walk straight, and instead was pushed downstream with each step. The water crept up the girl’s legs, surprisingly cold. Then the horse was swimming. The dog balanced nervously. Frida worried about her own balance, arms and legs wrapped around the horse as best she could. They made shore a good hundred yards downstream from where they started.
She got off and let the horse rest, pulled her shoes back on, and looked for the trail. After she remounted and they made the top of the hill, she realized she was facing east and the sun was already coming up, judging from the glow on the horizon.
The horse was walking now. The world seemed surreal in the coming light, the air rolling on the sweet butterscotch smell of the wet greasewood. That’s when she saw the first snake, fat from a recent meal, stretched out at full length alongside the trail, unable to move, nearly invisible on the desert pavement.
After a few miles, the trail came to the top of a deep wash that she’d never seen before, but she decided to climb down into it to follow it back to the river, for that’s where it would inevitably end.
The trail was narrow and rocky, and she was so unsure of her equestrian skills that she decided to dismount and let the horse pick his own way down. He was uncertain at first, too, but when he saw her threading her way downhill, he walked along the ridge top until he found safe footing down. The dog, as always, acted as if he knew exactly where he was and where he was going. And in fact, he did: He was with the girl and he was going where she went.
The wash bottom was wondrous, a hundred feet deep and stained green with copper. Pools of water stood in shaded corners, and at one point, a stream came above ground for a few hundred yards before percolating back into the sand.
She was back atop the horse when she saw the second snake, but only for an instant.
The shirrrr of a rattlesnake is so primal that even if you’ve never heard it before, you recognize it instantly, like a memory passed down from prehistory. The hair goes up on the back of your neck and it seems the world stops a moment.
The dog had been beating the sage and bunch grass along the wash trying to flush birds and ground squirrels and he had stirred up the snake instead. When she heard its rattle, Frida turned and saw the dog and the snake in a weird slow-motion ballet. The snake had risen up on its tail and was spiraling toward the dog, and the dog was instinctively twisting away. She knew that if the snake had bitten the dog, he’d have yelped in pain.
That was the last thing she knew. A beat later, the horse realized what was happening and reared up. She slipped backwards faster than she could catch herself and fell headfirst to the rocks.
When she came to, the sun was full overhead and the dog was licking her face. She sat up with a start, realizing she wasn’t home in bed. Her head hurt, her elbows and knees were skinned, but she seemed OK. She gave herself a once over, took inventory of scrapes and bruises--and then remembered the horse. It was nowhere in sight.
For the first time in her life, Frida thought about consequences. She had stolen a horse and then lost it, and even in this not-so-wild-anymore West, she figured that could send her to jail. For all she knew, it had been taken by a lion, and that made her feel so much worse. But she also knew that the horse would likely walk in the likely direction--down the wash to the river.
The dog was in his usual positive state of mind, as happy as if he had good sense. She wasn’t so sure about herself.
But she started walking anyway, and in an hour she had made it to the river. The horse was grazing in the high grass there, and he barely looked up when she came near, as if he were mad at her for screwing up and getting them both in trouble. But he still let her put the dog up on his back, let her climb up too, and then let her nose him back into the river.
She forgot to take her shoes off and suddenly felt them fill with cold water, and when she jumped down on the other side, they squished and squeaked with each step.
They’d only started the walk up the road to the corral when she saw the flashing lights of the sheriff’s car. She felt a cold shiver, thinking they were looking for her or for the horse, but then she realized the deputy had pulled over a car full of teenagers. It wasn’t her father, but some deputy she didn’t know who was so preoccupied with the ticket he was writing that he hardly nodded when she and the horse tip-toed around the two cars.
The other horses chortled when she opened the gate, and they came to meet their stable mate. There was no sign of life at the house.
The horse had indeed been missed, she’d learn later. But when he turned up unharmed, the owners just assumed that he had jumped the fence. So they built a new and higher one, this time with a locked gate. No matter: Frida’s riding days were over.
She and the dog climbed back in the bedroom window. She could hear her father banging around the kitchen, but it was possible he hadn’t noticed she was gone, since he seldom knocked at her door before noon. She slipped on a long robe to cover her cuts and bruises and padded to the bathroom to wash her face.
Dad was surprised and delighted to see her out of bed. She’d obviously gotten away with it once again, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to get away with anything more. And the conversation that had started out conspicuously and uncharacteristically gracious on her part, actually felt kind of good. Maybe this was the sign she needed.