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Wild Ride

by Lenore Mitchell


A black mustang stallion running free
under wide blue Colorado skies.

Deep inside this stallion’s bones, in his DNA, he carries the stamp of ancestors, the evolution of what came before, what passes on. Ancestral Equus evolved in what is now North America as small four-toed Eohippus beginning some fifty million years ago in the Cenozoic era. Fossil remains found in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin verify this, and one Eocene bed lies but a few miles from the present Pryor Mountains that stretch from Montana into Wyoming. Mustangs still roam there and south into Colorado.

While the stallion stands watch over his
herd, humans debate his right to exist.

Although fossil evidence proves that the modern horse, Equus caballus, evolved into present-day form in North America, they became extinct here ten thousand years ago in the Pleistocene era. One theory connects this extinction to the arrival of early humans who entered North America by way of the Bering Strait and hunted horses to local extinction.

While the stallion feels the sun’s warmth on his
back, humans debate his right to exist.

Fortunately for the stallion and all equines before and yet to come, another lineage of Equus caballus migrated from the Americas to Eurasia prior to continental drift and evolved there into the Przewalski, the Draft horse, the Arabian, and eventually every modern breed. Wild horses are specially adapted for survival in wide-open terrain with sparse vegetation, surviving in ecosystems where other large grazing animals such as European cattle cannot easily survive.

While the stallion lowers his head to graze,
humans debate his right to exist.

Four centuries ago, a mere blink in geological time, ancestors of the stallion arrived in what was then called the New World. Spanish Conquistadors led by  Columbus sailed the Atlantic to the Americas. With them came domesticated horses which carried the explorers and went on to transform the Native American way of life and then to facilitate settling land from Atlantic shores to the Pacific. These animals made life more bearable even for those who persecuted them. Some escaped or were released to become mustangs, or wild horses. The Conquistador’s mounts represented a return of horses to
their origin, the American continent.

While the stallion quenches thirst with cool
water, humans debate his right to exist.

Embedded in the stallion and his kind is an instinctive fear of predators, an  inbred wariness of wolves, of lions. And of the humans who hunted equine ancestors for food, who domesticated them at times with kindness to harness their power but all too often with whips and spurs to force them into submissiveness. Thus, the horrid term ‘breaking’ a horse. Instinctive fear stands guard over horses, sustaining them on the uphill quest of all creatures, the quest for freedom, for life.

While the stallion gathers mares to procreate,
humans with helicopters keep debating.

Before mustangs started disappearing without a trace, I tried telling myself it was enough to catch occasional glimpses of them running free and wild. I loved horses, made my living giving riding lessons, training stout Quarter horses, leggy warmbloods, cute ponies. Margo Richards, Everything Equine, was not only imprinted on my business cards but on my soul. But mustangs were unlike any animal I worked with, often tougher, smarter, surprisingly adaptable. They deserved lush meadows under a warm sun. Reality spawned rigs instead of grasses, threw fences around water holes. Reality came down to dollars, left out the sense.

The last straw was when the Bureau of Land Management on Colorado’s western slope issued a bulletin declaring that despite decreasing numbers of horses at Soda Creek Cliffs, half of the remaining animals would be removed before the fourth of July, a mere six weeks away. Drought, grazing rights, and energy exploration were cited as reasons, but the gist was clear. Mustangs made the sky too blue, the moon too bright. They sinned by having no financial reason to exist. The wild horse refuge I’d long dreamt about finally seemed like a possibility as well as a legacy to several special human beings. After last year’s death of my beloved foster mother, Elizabeth ‘Bow’ Bowan, her entire thousand acre property was hopefully going to become a mustang refuge. A generous donation from Sam Connolly, an old-time rancher, offered seed money. My plan to provide a forever home for mustangs progressed from maybe never to maybe now. But stubborn obstacles remained.

Which was why my truck was parked outside the BLM office in Pinedale Springs on a blue-sky spring day, and I was inside confronting obstacle numero uno. Joe Gannon was a big guy, not so much tall as paunchy. A middle-aged, middle management sort with an over-sized plaque in the center of his desk proclaiming his importance: Joseph Herbert Gannon, Field Supervisor, Bureau of Land Management. Ever since his arrival less than a year ago, he’d taken advantage of every opportunity to whine that this little western Colorado town was nothing but an outpost on the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter to him that area ranchers like me considered this edge a fine place to live.

Gannon leaned forward in his impressive leather chair, placed elbows on his impressive desk, and scowled. “Like I said last time, Miz Richards, there’s nothing more I can do.”

Everyone calls me Margo. Miz sounded weird, like I’d suddenly aged from thirty-five to sixty-five. Whatever. “C’mon, Joe,” I said, attempting a smile without much success. “Nothing more you can do or nothing more you will do! The BLM has a mandate to protect mustangs, including those at Soda Creek Cliffs.”

His scowl deepened. “BLM land has many uses, and oversight of wild horses is just one aspect, a minor one at that.”

I clinched my fists. “So this next enormous roundup will proceed despite the already low numbers of mustangs, and despite the danger to foals made to run in summer heat. And what about the disappearances?”

“The next gathering is already scheduled. And you keep insisting horses are disappearing. But animals do die. You’ve ranched here all your life. Surely, you realize that horses don’t live forever. Death is just nature taking its course.”

My turn to scowl.

I may be female, I may be on the short side, and I may be so lacking in style that I hadn’t bothered to change out of my breeches and muddy paddock boots for this meeting. But surprise, surprise, I’ve got a brain. I’ve got a temper, too, but managed to take a deep breath and aim a tight smile that didn’t reach my eyes in his direction before responding.

“Surely, you realize that nature leaves carcasses, bones. Disappearances leave nothing but questions.”

He sighed, putting some effort into it. “Do you even know how many are missing?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, then, give me a number.”

“It’s your job to know that,” I said. There were at least six disappearances that I knew about.

“Now see here, Miz Richards, getting all huffy is not necessary.”

I was tempted to provide a demo of huffy, but he wasn’t worth the effort. I just shook my head. “You hate the mustangs, so why won’t you authorize moving some of them to my private refuge?”

“Because those animals are on BLM land and under my jurisdiction.”

I was on the verge of letting loose with a mouth-full of unlady-like, but managed to hold back. Mostly.

“The BLM wastes hellacious amounts of money on round-ups and then maintaining mustangs in those damn holding pens. I’m offering to save the Feds money. Taking some horses off government hands is a favor to taxpayers.”

“I hear not everyone around here agrees with your plans to turn the Bowan property into a refuge.”

“That doesn’t bother me,” I said even though it did. A lot. Not only did I have to convince the BLM, I had to manage the downright hostility some locals aimed my way. When it came to mustangs, tempers flared. Always had, always would. To some, wild horses symbolized the west, freedom. Others called them feral nags, considered them nothing but nuisances taking up space, depleting grasses needed for cattle, land suited for drilling.

Gannon stroked one of his double chins. “Best listen to those who oppose you. At any rate, you are wasting your time and mine. It is not going to happen.”

“Shit,” I muttered, pushing back my chair and storming out.

Patience never made it onto my skill-set, except when it came to horses. Neither did sweet talking bureaucrats. Not everyone in the BLM hated mustangs. In fact, the last district manager promoted darting mares with birth-control, but Gannon was the local head honcho now. I needed another plan. I needed allies, both inside and outside of the BLM. And soon. I had to establish the refuge before more mustangs disappeared and before Gannon got his way. Some BLM doodle-brains conjured up the sugar-coated term ‘gatherings’ instead of round-ups, downplayed the use of low-flying helicopters, but there was no way to sugar-coat the inevitable injuries and death.

I had no idea why mustangs were disappearing without a trace. Besides that, two foals died in the last round-up, trampled to death in the chaos as a helicopter stampeded thundering hooves toward catch pens. A mare and a yearling colt fell too, shattering legs. The BLM shot each of the injured on sight, leading to arguably more merciful ends than those destined to wallow in over-crowded holding pens the rest of their lives or end up in the Mexico slaughter pipeline.

Outside the BLM office, I took a deep breath to attempt lowering my blood pressure and hoisted myself inside the truck. Zap and Fetch delivered the usual tail-wagging greeting. My one-ton dually broadcast my sour mood as we rumbled loudly down Main Street. I considered stopping for a double-dip butter brickle at the corner of 3rd and Main, but not today.

Too riled.

Always the happy dog, Fetch stuck his head out the passenger-side window, mouth open, tongue lolling while Zap cuddled beside me, dark eyes registering concern. Both Border Collies were perceptive, but Zap soothed while Fetch entertained. Despite the dog’s efforts, I fumed all through town, on past Morton’s Auto Dealership, the lumberyard, and Smith’s Hay & Grain to ten miles of dirt road and home. The ranch where I grew up served as my hub for the collision of life’s highs and lows. Even though it’d been a year now since Bow’s death, the sight of her barn and land next to mine remained an open wound pulling me back to times past, to others gone, tears shed. Establishing a refuge on her land would be an homage to her, a reminder of who she was and all she taught me about horses, about life.

Anyone who’s ever loved horses relates to that mystical feeling of being transported into their realm. As always, I slowed down while driving past the dozen or so horses in my front pasture. Most ignored me, but Phantom and Babe knew the sound of my truck, lifted their heads from lush May grass and trotted toward the fence, inviting me to come stroke their velvet muzzles. Offering a snack was welcomed too, which was why I kept a bag of crunchy horse treats in the back. I pulled over, ducked inside the fence and spent a few minutes with Phantom, the sleek black mustang mare, talented and reliable beyond expectations.

And always Babe, the fabulous Half-Arab chestnut who tolerated me as a kid and even now with greying muzzle, she still tutored me about the link between horses and humans. A few minutes with these two mares rendered me mellow enough to face the rest of the day. Who needs Prozac with horses around. It would’ve been better if Roy was home, but he was in Salt Lake City on business, due back in a day or so. We were now husband and wife, and the delight of our six-month union hadn’t yet worn off, hopefully never would. I still caught myself staring at the gold band on my ring finger with shock and amazement.

I was a married woman!

Keeping my last name seemed simpler for business reasons, and speaking of business, as much as I wanted to concentrate on establishing the refuge, that wouldn’t pay the bills. There were horses to train, lessons to give, stalls to clean. I grabbed an apple and a handful of walnuts for lunch, put on a baseball hat and headed to the barn. I barely got inside before my cell rang.

“Stop messing with those mustangs or you’ll be real sorry,” a man’s voice began. He didn’t bother identifying himself, just threatened to ruin my business unless I dropped my plans to save the mustangs.

The voice sounded different from another anonymous foul-mouth who’d called two days ago and unleashed a string of expletives ending with something anatomically impossible about the horse I rode in on.

I didn’t say a word to either one, although I considered telling them to have a jolly good day and drop in soon for a cookie and a cup of simmering strychnine.

I plopped my cell on a shelf and proceeded to groom a skittish young mustang I’d be mounting for the first time. This buckskin gelding, appropriately named Hotshot, was brought to me by one of the locals who favored these animals for stock work, once the wild was gentled out of them. The rancher was too smart and too rich to risk his own skin when he could wave a wad of cash under my nose and let me be the first human to get cozy with half a ton of unpredictable horseflesh.

It paid to be cautious. I’ve trained enough horses to know that working with any youngster isn’t for those intimidated by mangled muscles or broken pride.

The phone made noise again.

I was more intent on gathering my equipment and my courage than on continued interruptions, and one threat per day seemed sufficient. Still, who knew, this might be a buyer for one of my horses or a client scheduling riding lessons.

“Margo Richards here,” I said while continuing to groom Hotshot.

“Hi Margo,” Jessica Parker said as if we’d spoken yesterday.

My fingers opened, and a brush full of horsehair plunked onto the concrete floor. Zap and Fetch sprang up from curled slumber and rushed to my side, ears up, eyes alert.

The last thing on my mind was yesterdays or former friends.

“It’s been a long time, Jessica,” I finally said, reaching down to pat the dogs.

“Yes, far too long. I’ve missed you so much. But we’re always on the move. And things are… complicated.”

Things always were, with Jessica. I lifted my baseball cap, swiped the back of one hand across my forehead, stuffed long blonde hair behind my ears. And waited, silent.

“I need to…” she cleared her throat. “This is…awkward.”

Hearing her voice again twisted the present into the past, a swirl of moments remembered. I shook my head against a breathless inability to stop memories from sliding back to the bond between us that seemed unbreakable until it shattered from neglect.

“Well then,” she said into the silence, “I can’t blame you for being mad.”

“It’s… I’m not mad,” I said.

“You have every right, though. Life just, like… happens. Too busy, you know?”

I opened my mouth, wanted to say something profound. Busy, I understood, but still. From grade school on through college, we’d been besties, a duo. After college, she headed to Nashville and a recording contract while I returned to Pinedale and the ranch.

We stayed in touch, for a while, first through calls, then Facebook, Instagram. Then even those connections fell away amidst changing contact info, impermanent addresses. I’d tried telling myself it wasn’t a big deal, but it felt like one more loss in a life too full of them.

Hotshot raised his head, snorted. Nothing like a spray of horse boogers to convey impatience.

“I’ve got an antsy gelding here,” I said, rechecking his crossties and murmuring “Easy now, easy.”

Roy says I whisper those words in my sleep.

“I won’t keep you,” Jessica said. “I just…” She made a sound between a laugh and a groan.

I was tempted to groan myself. Time had suspended the ease between us, maybe erased it altogether. But something in her tone jolted me. “Is something wrong? Are you sick?”

“No, no. Nothing physical.”

I exhaled, banishing half-formed visions of bandages, nurses with needles. Zap licked my hand and Fetch sat, fluffy tails working. I patted first one hairy head, then the other. Assured that no crisis existed, the dogs yawned and laid back down.

“It’s good to hear your voice. I just…I’m just surprised. Hold on for a minute, let me put this gelding in a stall.”

“I’m sorry. Why don’t I call back later.”

“It’s okay, just give me a minute.” Hotshot wasn’t yet used to standing tied very long, so I led him to a nearby stall. He was the type prone to sudden panic and the risk of having him pull back and get all excited would mean no mounting session today.

“I’m here again. So what’s up?”

“Well, for starters, I’m coming to Pinedale Springs for a concert.”

“Oh, that’s a surprise. But great! When?”

“Like soon, about two weeks. I, well…”

“What? Tell me.”

She sighed, loudly. “It’s, like, complicated. To begin with, my career has, like, taken a nose-dive. And then, well, there’s some guy… a crazy fan. He calls, sends letters, like, weird stuff. Didn’t bother me at first.”

“This guy is stalking you?”

“Kind of, yeah, but it’s, like, under control, at least I think so. I’ll tell you about it when we get there.”

I imagined seeing her again, wasn’t sure how that might unfold.

“Where are you now?”

“Heading for San Antonio, our next gig. We’ve been on the road for weeks.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“Used to be, back when it seemed like I’d make it big. The bloom is off, though. Now it’s just a whole lot of work. I’m looking forward to seeing you, spending a few days in Colorado. I wrote a song about mustangs called ‘Running Wild, Running Free’. It needs to debut there. And… I need your help.”

“Mustangs can use positive publicity, especially around here, but you know that.”

“We need wild ones on stage. Yours, of course.”

“On stage? Mustangs? You can’t be serious!”

“This is important, Margo. Might be the last song I’ll ever write. I need one final triumph.”

“What do you mean? Your songs are still on the radio, you’re still on tour.”

“Yeah, but like I said, it’s complicated. My career isn’t, well, it needs a boost.” She paused. “Besides, I’m homesick, thought we could pick up where we left off.”

I wasn’t sure where we left off, what fragments of friendship remained.

“So provide a few horses,” she continued, “do this for me. You’re still dreaming about a wild horse refuge, right?”

“Yes. It’s more than a dream now. But I’m trying to save mustangs, not jeopardize them.”

“Now c’mon, Margo. Yours are, like, trained and all, right?”

“Some. Others haven’t been handled yet, some may never be. Besides, I have mostly Quarter horses. But even the mellowest of any breed wouldn’t tolerate being on a stage in front of berserk crowds.”

She sniffed. “I thought you’d help.”

“What you’re asking isn’t reasonable. Why not show videos instead?”

“We’re planning the big screen thing. We need real mustangs too, not some nags who wouldn’t prick their ears if the stage burst into flames.”

“I hate the word nags.” She knew that.

“Sorry. But the audience, especially there, will know if the horses aren’t genuine. And so will the press.”

“The press?”

“Definitely. Publicity is crucial.” I imagined cameras, chaos. “You know enough about horses to realize what you’re asking is, just, crazy.”

She produced a dramatic sigh. “Are we friends or what?”

“I…now’s not the time for this. I’m sorry, Jessica.”

“They’ll only be on stage five minutes, that’s all, and in a secure corral. They’ll be fine. My new song is soft, mellow.”

“Some people around here hate the mustangs now, want them gone.”

“Hate them? But why?”

“Money. Drilling, cattle grazing and big game hunting are profitable, mustangs aren’t.”

“All the more reason to show your horses off, make people aware,” she insisted.

“Having them on stage will remind everyone how beautiful they are, how majestic.”

“Being on stage in front of a crowd would scare the hell out of most horses.”

“But don’t you still train horses for, like, movie producers?”

“Occasionally,” I said, “but none of my mustangs have been around bright lights, sudden noises.”

“If anyone could train, like, a few for this, it’s you, Margo.” My turn to sigh. “Maybe,” I muttered. As soon as I’d said that one word, I regretted it. I’d just turned absolutely not into something Jessica would run with.

“Make it three, no wait, like five. And I’ll donate a chunk of the proceeds from my concert toward this refuge of yours. Everyone wins.”

“It’s not that easy,” I said. “The herds out there are in real trouble. Some of them are disappearing.”

“What do you mean?”

“As in gone without a trace. No carcasses, no bones, nothing except hoof prints.”

“That’s terrible. Who’s behind it?”

“Certain ranchers, possibly. Certain BLM people, maybe. Or, could be the drillers. Anyone driven by greed. And time is running out. I need to get out there again, check the herds.”

“Take me with you. I’d love to come.”

“It’s a long ride, might be dangerous.”

“Don’t give me that. One of the reasons I’m coming home is to ride with you. Besides, I’ve ridden at Soda Creek Cliffs before.”

“That was years ago. Things are different now.”

“The right publicity would, like, help them, raise some of the money you need. I want to go, see the wild ones, Margo.”

She asked about Bow, and although it was still painful to talk about how my foster mother died, Jessica had loved Elizabeth Bow Bowan.

“I wish I’d known,” Jessica said when I finished an abbreviated version of last year’s awful events. “I’m truly sorry I didn’t keep in touch.”

“I tried to contact you, but nothing worked, not Facebook, nada.”

“I had to change my social media contacts, like, several times. It’s been crazy.”

I told her to call back in a few days, let me think about the mustang proposal. She had a point about the need for publicity. She also had the same old way of manipulating me. Even so, her ideas had some merits.

The world was full of horse-lovers, and the more of them who knew about the mustangs’ plight, the better. Then again, what the hell was I thinking. No way should I jeopardize mustangs no matter how much publicity resulted. I’d let myself fall right into Jessica’s trap. Her singing career might be wavering, but her talent for dramatic flair and for playing old friends remained unchanged. I couldn’t help but look forward to seeing her again, even though I hoped her visit would be low-drama, for once.

Fat chance.

I saddled Hotshot, led the gelding to the round pen, put one foot and a bit of weight into a stirrup. He allowed it. I stroked his neck, murmuring low, and eased myself onto his back. Born wild, some mustangs adjusted surprisingly well to domestication. But Hotshot was the type who smoldered with resentment at the loss of freedom, this association with puny two-legged creatures. My job was to change his mind.

A few circles around the perimeter would complete the chestnut’s first mounted lesson.

Someone had other plans.

Half-way around, a yellow ball landed in the middle of the pen, scattering dust, bouncing high. Any horse would’ve been startled, but the gelding got downright pissed. He snorted, sidestepped, then thrust his neck down despite my efforts to stop what I knew came next. First two bucks weren’t bad, but then the little turd got serious.

I landed face down, the ball inches from my dirt-encrusted eyes. The thing was the size of a basketball, but smooth and shiny. Someone had gone to the effort of writing a message on it to clarify that this wasn’t some random bouncing.

Good to know.

The scrawl suggested I should “eat shit and DIE.” That final word was enlarged and done in red.

The penmanship was atrocious.

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