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Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

Chapter 1: The Horses Return

They must have known they were coming home for nothing else can explain their survival and perhaps only that knowledge deep in their cells sustained them. Horses are animals of prey and they like the wide open and therefore to be constrained on the decks in the hot sun or between decks without light or means of escape for two or three months would have overloaded their circuits. Threats hung in the air and everything was new and strange. Where once they smelled land and grass and legumes, they now would smell salt air mixed with the galleon stench; where once they heard the sounds of their own hooves on the fields of Europe, they now heard the uneasy creak of wood as the giant brigantines hove through walls of water; where once they were calmed by the nuzzling and grooming of their band and family members in each other's manes and necks, they now were held in place with slings and hoists, touched and reassured not by their own kind but by the men who were in charge of making sure they had safe passage.

These were the horses which carried Spain to victory in the New World. During the years of the conquest, thousands of them were shipped across the Atlantic. More than half died on the way. Sometimes when rations ran low they were killed for food. Sometimes the ships sank in hurricanes, taking the horses to a howling and watery grave, along with slaves who had been kidnapped from Africa and chained to each other in the ships' galleys. Often the ships became becalmed mid-ways; between 30 to 35 degrees north and south of the equator, the barometric pressure would increase and the hot dry breezes called the westerlies would stop blowing. The procession of proud, defiant galleons would come to a halt, mired in the tropics for endless days, their massive sails limp in the blistering sun, and the cargo - man and animal alike - slowly going mad.

It was time to lighten the load. The horses were removed from their slings and taken abovedecks. At long last they saw light and could move freely, although were still hobbled by their weak legs, and they probably faltered as the conquistadors urged them to the gangplank. Perhaps as they faltered they took in the sweep of the peripheries with their big satellite eyes and then gazed across the seas where an albatross was passing, following it all the way to the equator and beyond, and as their eyes swept the horizon they may have experienced a vestigial sense memory of the wide-open space in the New World where they once roamed before it had a name. Perhaps they felt that strange tingling of hot, dry no-wind that raises the hack on all living creatures and makes the neurons crackle and the ganglia dance as sea monsters and dolphin pods and vast armies of seaweed growing from canyons whose rims were the ocean floor encircled the brigantines and waited. Perhaps - as they drank in the air - for the last time - they never felt more alive. And then they were spooked down the plank by thirsty, desperate men who cursed loudly and waved things to scare them, and they skidded down the gangway shrieking in fear, thrown to the seas so the armada could catch the wind.

And as the sea was swallowing them, the ships would rise in the water, lighter now, and the sails would again furl with the crackling air and the procession would leave the region that sailors came to call the "horse latitudes." Of course, not all the horses were jettisoned on those terrible crossings and perhaps the ones that were passed over when the men went belowdecks to make their grisly selection sensed - in the way that all animals have a homing instinct and generation after generation make their way back to their ancestral turf - that they would soon be home, back on the continent that spawned them, thirteen-thousand years after they dispersed and mysteriously disappeared from their birthplace. In fact, it must have been more than a sensation or a feeling, it was a kind of certainty that ran through their bones, down through their legs and into the ground they would soon churn up as they headed for the range, yes, they had to know, for how else to explain the ease and speed with which they adapted to the American desert?

Sixteen horses came with Hernando Cortes and the record tells us that they perished during perished during the early years of the conquest. And so too the 350 that followed later with Hernando de Soto. But there's a legend that says otherwise. It says that a foal was born en route to Mexico from Spain and that she survived, escaping at some unknown time, running towards her prehistoric ancestors on the North American continent, over mountains and across valleys and canyons and rivers, through cloudbursts and duststorms and days of no water, left to carry on by jaguars and wolves and snakes, perhaps aided by animal spirits, particularly chattering birds that urged the foal onward as she grew older, eventually finding her own kind - six horses that are said to have escaped the de Soto campaign and moved westward. This small band, too, had traveled great distances, across wetlands and then into the parched flats just beyond the Rio Grande, like the foal, getting a reprieve from predators, or perhaps not appealing to them for reasons that we do not know, drawing ever closer to the American West, possibly sensing in their bones and marrow that one of their own was waiting for them, needed their kinship, and it was in the Sonoran Desert possibly, or the Mojave, that one day the six happened upon the one, drinking at a depression in a canyon rock, or grazing on some rabbitbrush, and then they exchanged some information and headed for freedom, El Norte, their home.

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