Deanne Stillman is a critically acclaimed writer whose books, including Desert Reckoning and Mustang, have won numerous awards. She is also the author of the cult classic Twentynine Palms, which Hunter Thompson called “a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Deanne is currently writing Blood Brothers, a book about the unlikely friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. To find out more visit www.deannestillman.com. Here she tells the story of her life changing meeting with a wounded wild horse, named Bugz.
In 1999, I met a horse named Bugz after her herd had been gunned down outside Reno. Thirty-four horses had died. She was spotted by a hiker, foundering in a gulley, watched over by several stallions. Rescuers were called, and they carried her to a sanctuary. There she endured, and for many years I returned to visit her. Bugz was my guide as I worked on my book about the war against the wild horses of America.
In the corral, we would watch the horizon together—the vanishing wilderness where some of her own kind were fighting for their lives, fending off roundups and the encroaching march of tract housing, staying wild and free for the rest of us. Time would pass and all was still; we were breathing together, inhaling the great winds of the range and then huffing out the burden of the story we both now carried.
To understand what happened to Bugz, I needed to find out how mustangs had arrived in Nevada. I began following them across time, and soon realized that this massacre was the latest episode in a long story of martyrdom, from the horses of the Spanish conquest to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and beyond.
During the years that I worked on my book, the only place I could find solace was with Bugz. But if Bugz were here to stand with me as I travelled this road, as I believed, did that mean she’d die when I had completed my task?
Or, to be more blunt, would finishing Mustang kill Bugz? I couldn’t bear the thought, and I was afraid to complete my book.
No matter how long I delayed, one day my job was finally done and I pressed the send button. Mustang was delivered. After a celebration, I headed toward LA on the 405, lost in the flow of traffic and life. I heard an escalating rumble and checked my mirrors. A tractor-trailer was quickly gaining ground behind me, ejecting smoke and hauling several rigs as it thundered down the blacktop. The steering wheel on my Mazda rattled, the car vibrated and veered left, nearing the oncoming traffic. I was losing control. But as quickly as the truck came, it vanished—though not before I caught the logo on its back door. It was a big imprint of a wild horse, and it said “Mustang.”
The passing truck almost pushed me off the road and I wondered what that meant. Was it the period at the end of a sentence, the universe acknowledging that I had finished my book? Or was it more—in completing my task, had I not just let my own horses out but opened up the gates for America’s horses as well? That seemed grandiose, but I’m a believer in signs, and possibilities were afoot.
A year later, my book was published to acclaim. It’s had a big impact on readers and was given to President Obama. Yet the story I tell has overtaken my book, with its language entering the national conversation, often without acknowledgment. “How can I help?” people ask at my talks, texting representatives. And then sometimes they rush out the door, without buying a book, headed to the library to borrow it.
A year after Mustang was published, Bugz passed away. I had seen her several months before and sensed the end was near. She knew it, too, and I stood with her in the corral and wrapped my arms around her. Suddenly I was singing an Indian death song. How I knew it, I cannot say. Yes, I have attended powwows and yes, the chanting has resonated, but before that moment, I had never sung anything like it and had no knowledge of any Native American language beyond a few phrases. But there I stood, wailing into the mane of the little brown mustang who survived a massacre and transmitted something sacred when it was over. I cried and cried, and then the song was finished, and I apologized to Bugz for the deeds of my kind. Sometime later I hit the road. There were people who needed to know her story, and to this day, I carry a piece of her mane with me.