THE BLOG
01/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Luckiest Horse in Reno: A Christmas Story

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 of the vehicle 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 have since been eroded). 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 reestablishing themselves in their homeland, blazing our trails and fighting our wars, ultimately - like many others - heading into the nether reaches of Nevada to be left alone.

This Christmas marks the ten-year anniversary of the Reno horse massacre. Over the years, I've visited the kill site several times, to pay respects and mark its change. On my latest pilgrimage with Betty Kelly, we climbed up the rutted road leading into the mountains, past sites where men used to trap wild horses and haul them away. Soon, we were near the place where the wild horses of Nevada are making their last stand. We parked and walked up a rise. It had recently rained and the stands of sage were puffy 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 and they were crossed, as if running in repose, polished and caressed and battered by the winds of the Great Basin, radiating almost, a reverse silhouette of wildness paralyzed in movement and time. 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. 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 voracious 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. In the tradition of old-time mustangers, they had been heading into the mountains since their high school days, with at least one of them firing into the beleaguered herd and boasting about it to friends. And so had a long list of other suspects.

"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. His spine was vanishing, but still flush against the sand and his ribs curved towards the sky. "There was a stallion watching us that day," Betty had told me long ago, now reciting the rest of the prayer. "Just standing at the perimeter as we found each dead horse. When the sun went down and we got in our cars, he trotted on down the road. His family had been wiped out but we still didn't know how bad it was."

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 I decided that a natural force had disturbed the stones - a person who wanted to vandalize the scene would have done more damage. And then I discovered something new: an empty box of Winchester cartridges, lodged between the branches of another juniper 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.

For more about our wild horses, read Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a
Los Angeles Times best book of 2008.

Cross-posted at www.laobserved.com.