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O'Toole told the Peruvian, "If the wind picks up, and the sheep get blown out, just head back to your sheep camp. Whatever you do, don't try to follow them." He said this in both English and Spanish and, just to be sure, in gestures, because the way weather can turn on you in Wyoming, a man needs all the languages at his disposal to explain it. After that, a veteran herder of these ranges, also a Peruvian, gave the young man one short, critical piece of advice in Spanish. Then Quispe rode off with Dot and the sheep into the wide-open world.

He wasn't there very long before the wind turned to speeding metal sheets, and the temperature hit 35° below zero Fahrenheit. Quispe, full of youth's eagerness to prove itself, tried to stay with the flock. Then the sheep blustered off the range, and night fell, and the wind sped all the harder. The young shepherd was lost, frozen solid to his horse and sure he would die. Just then, however, he remembered the key piece of advice the veteran shepherd had given him. So Quispe leaned forward, took off Dot's bridle, and wrapped his arms around the mustang's neck. He closed his eyes and committed his soul to the Holy Mother.

Dot­—whose ancestors roamed these plains roughly one and a half million years ago, and who was born wild onto this very land just six years earlier, and therefore knew this world to the millionth power—lowered his head to smell for prairie dog and badger holes to keep from falling and, compensating with brains and courage for what he lacked in beauty, took the terrified youngster right back to camp.

When the weather in Wyoming seems hell-bent on murder, and a shepherd can't see past his nose, the difference between life and death is—just as it used to be a century ago—a good, native-bred horse with more than a usual dose of backcountry smarts. But when the wind dies down, and cell phone service is restored, this modern age arrives with noisy, impatient abruptness, and wild horses look out of place in a West that is shrinking around them. So a straggle of mares and a few foals led by a single stud running parallel to a barbed-wire fence, power pylons, and an oil-field truck behind them is the way I first saw mustangs near Rock Springs late in the fall of 2007.

"Wild horses are right in the middle of a culture that wants nothing to do with them," said Jay Kirkpatrick, director of science and conservation biology at ZooMontana, in Billings, a center for the development of contraceptives for wildlife. Kirkpatrick, who has spent more than 30 years studying the animals, said the wild horse has been despised ever since white men came west—blamed for everything that can and does go wrong on these grasslands. So in the mid-1800s, when stockmen released up to 40 million cattle on the plains, where horses had lived for centuries without destroying the grazing, at most two million mustangs were held responsible for the suddenly depleted range.

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