Christmas Elegy for Bugz the Wild Horse, 1998-2009

12/21/2009 12:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

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. The band of wild horses had only recently returned to this patch of scrub; the land had been stripped bare of forage by hordes of roaming cattle and it was only in the past year that some edible plants--their seeds dropped here by migratory birds who knows when--began to green up the hills and provide nourishment for the critters which brought us all westward ho. At the sound of the vehicle, the band--all 35 horses--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 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, 1998. 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 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 their sanctuary in 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. Yet she was nervous, not skittish like a lot of horses are, especially wild ones; she was distracted, preoccupied, perhaps even haunted. Because of her location when rescued, 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. I came to think of her as the luckiest horse in Reno.

Bugz was a member of the Virginia Range herd, the first mustangs in the country to win legal protection. Like the other mustangs of the West, their history in this land runs deep; their ancestors flourished on this continent during the Ice Age, crossed the Bering land bridge, fanned out across the world, went extinct here and then returned with conquistadors, quickly re-establishing themselves in their homeland, blazing our trails and fighting our wars, ultimately - like many people - heading into Nevada to be left alone.

I met Bugz in 1999 shortly after her band had been wiped out. I had just embarked on the wild horse trail, compelled by the incident to write about what happened and why. The scope of this tale was vast, I soon came to learn, and it took me into deep time, vast prairies, the story of my family and my tribe - and finally the story of America. Of this I am now certain: our story is not separate from the mustang's, and as the wild horse goes, so goes a piece of our soul and our country.

Over the years, I visited Bugz many times and watched as she became part of the mustang community at Wild Horse Spirit. She slowly forged alliances though never lost her edge, and every now and then underwent surgeries for conditions that began with her ordeal on the range. Sometimes I would stand with Bugz in the corral, taking in her scent and the desert perfume that wafted in. We would look beyond the fence towards the great wide open, and in her troubled presence, I felt only hope and truth and no judgment.

But government round-ups of wild horses were escalating and around the same time Bugz began to fade - or at least her attention had turned elsewhere. She spurned her favorite mates, stopped eating, and paced the corral. Her kidney ailment worsened and her spirit faltered, and I wondered if the terror of the round-ups was carried on the wind. How much could any one horse endure? I thought as her ribs began to show, and on my last visit with Bugz, I rested my head on her flanks and suddenly I began keening. It was an Indian song that I did not know, and yet it seemed as if it had been inside me forever. It poured out and the tears came and I leaned into her mane until the song ended and then I stayed there for awhile. I knew I would never see her again and later I realized I had sung a death song.

This Christmas marks the 11th anniversary of the massacre of the Virginia Range horses. On June 2nd of this year, Bugz joined her family of origin. Bobbi and Betty sent me a clip of her mane, braided with desert sage. I keep the braid in a special place and I inhale its scent at times of need; it dispels rage and doubt and fear, and as the holidays beckon, it speaks of peace on earth, good will to all. RIP Bugz, now running wild and free forever, and thank you for your big, desert heart. I'm so sorry that my kind broke it.