The luckiest horse in Reno

by Deanne Stillman

When the men approached, the black foal might have been nursing. Or she might have been on her side, giving her wobbly legs a rest, leaning into her mother under the starry desert sky. At the sound of the vehicle, the band prepared to move and did move at once, for horses are animals of prey and so their withers twitched, their ears stiffened, their perfect, unshod hooves dug into the scrub for traction and then they began to run. The black foal might have taken a second or two longer than the others to rise. Perhaps the mare, already upright, bolted instantly, turning her head to see if the foal had followed. The headlights appeared on a rise. The men were shouting and then there was another bright light -- it trained from the roof of the vehicle across the sunken bajada and it swept the sands, illuminating the wild and running four-legged spirits as their legs stretched in full perfect extension, flashing across their hides which were dun and paint and bay, making a living mural in 3-D in which the American story -- all of it -- was frozen here forever, in the desert as it always is, as bullets hissed from the vehicle through the patches of juniper and into the wild horses of the old frontier. It was Christmas. Two thousand years earlier, Christ had been born in a stable.

Two months later on a cold and sunny afternoon, a man was hiking in the mountains outside of Reno. Something made him look to his left, up a hill. He saw a dark foal lying down in the sagebrush, not able to get up. A bachelor stallion had been watching from a distance and now came over and nibbled at the foal's neck. She tried to get up but couldn't and the stallion rejoined his little band. The hiker called for help. A vet arrived and could find no injuries. As it grew dark, a trailer was pulled across the washes and gulleys until it approached the filly, about a hundred yards away and down hill. The stars were particularly bright that night and helped the rescue party, equipped only with flashlights, lumber across the sands and up the rocky rise where the filly was down. Four men lifted her onto a platform and carried her down the hill and into the trailer. "She was a carcass with a winter coat," Betty Lee Kelly, a rescuer, later told me. She was covered with ticks and parasites, weak and anemic. She was six months old. Two days later, at a sanctuary near Carson City called Wild Horse Spirit, Betty and her partner Bobbi Royle helped her stand. But she kept falling. Over the weeks, they nourished her and she grew strong and regained muscle and she began to walk without falling down. But she was nervous, not skittish like a lot of horses are, especially wild ones, but distracted, preoccupied, perhaps even haunted. Because of her location when rescued, which was near Lagomarsino Canyon, and because she was starving, her rescuers reasoned that she had been a nursing foal who had recently lost her mother. Without mother's milk, a foal can last for a while in the wilderness, sometimes as long as a couple of months. And because a band of bachelor stallions had been nearby when she was found, her rescuers figured that they had taken her in, looking after her until they could no more, standing guard as she lay down in the brush to die. As it turned out, the filly was the lone survivor of the Christmas massacre, and they called her Bugz.

Bugz was a member of the historic Virginia Range herd, the first mustangs in the country to win legal protection (which they have since lost). Like the other mustangs of the West, their history in this land runs deep, as DNA has shown; they are direct descendants of the horses of the Ice Age, which flourished in the West, crossed the Bering land bridge, fanned out across the world, went extinct here and then returned with conquistadors, quickly re-establishing themselves and ultimately heading into the nether reaches of Nevada to be left alone.

Several years ago, I drove out to the kill site with Betty Kelly, to pay respects and see how it's changed since the massacre. We climbed the rutted road leading into the Virginia Range, parked and walked up a rise. It was spring time and the stands of sage were puffy with rain and fragrant. Except for our footsteps, it was quiet. The horse skulls and cages of ribs and shins and intact hooves and manes and tails were still there, forever preserved in the dry Mojave air. There was a pair of leg bones, crossed, as if running in repose. Betty knew exactly which horse this was, and had told me about her on our first visit to the site. Of the 34 horses killed in the massacre, she was horse #1 in the court record, or Hope, as she and Bobbi had named her after being called to the scene on the day the bodies were discovered, as they always are when mustangs are in need -- which is often.

Branded as pests that steal food from livestock or renegades that range into town and destroy lawns, they have been under siege for decades, enduring government round-ups and vicious killings. The murders are rarely solved, although in the case of the 1998 massacre, three men were arrested and one of them ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge -- killing a horse that another member of the trio had already shot to put it out of its misery.

"She had probably been here for a day or two," Betty recalled, and as she continued, it was like a prayer. "She was lying in the sand. She had dug a small hole with her front legs, intermittently trying to get up." I knew the story well and in the bearing witness there was comfort and then Betty's voice trailed off and we walked on. After awhile, we came across the horse known in the Nevada court system as #4. Like the others, Bobby and Betty gave him a name. It was Alvin. He was the one who was shot in the chest and whose eye was mutilated with a fire extinguisher. His carcass -- the barrel of his chest -- was picked and blown clean by time, wind, and critters, rooted always in the great wide open.

As I walked the site this time, I saw that someone or something, maybe a coyote or perhaps the weather, had moved a few of the large stones in the cross under a juniper tree that Betty had made on the one-year anniversary. But it was still very much a cross. And then I discovered something new: an empty box of Winchester cartridges, lodged between the branches of another tree. Winchester -- the gun that won the West, the ammo that brought it to its knees -- now back as a reminder, probably placed intentionally and maybe by the people who killed the horses. Did someone have us in their sights? I wondered as I looked across the range. "I think it's time to go," I said, but as we walked back to the pick-up, there came a wonderful sight -- a few horses, down from a rise. Since the massacre, Betty rarely saw them in the canyon, and she had visited it several times a year, as a kind of a groundskeeper for the cemetery. On my visits, I had not seen any horses either, nor had I seen any hoofprints, which made me think that they had been avoiding the area because in the desert, tracks last for a very long time.

The horses that approached were brown with black manes -- the scruffy and beautiful Nevada horses that nobody asks for at the adoption centers. We stopped in our tracks and watched them and they watched us back. After awhile, we bid them farewell. As we headed down the mountain, I turned for one more look. They were walking across the boneyard towards the stone cross, reclaiming their home.

Deanne Stillman's beat is the desert, and her previous book is the bestselling Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. This piece is excerpted from Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, just published by Houghton Mifflin.

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