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At the same time, the range-tough wild horses, a fast-breeding renewable resource, were indispensable to early settlers. Occasionally hunted to keep their numbers in check, they were also rounded up periodically for ranch work and transport or were used to conquer and define the growing nation. Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, invading Mexico with Gen. Zachary Taylor's army in March 1846 on a freshly caught mustang (from mestengo, meaning "stray"), tells in a contemporary account: "As far as the eye could reach to our right, the herd extended. To the left, it extended equally. There was no estimating the number of animals in it."

But then came railroads and roads, cars and tractors, tanks and combine harvesters, and you can't fix a dead horse with a monkey wrench, so the mustang lost its value as transport and instead became, literally, dogmeat. Millions of pounds of wild horsemeat were processed into food for dogs, cats, and chickens during the 1930s alone. "Man," as Pat O'Toole said, "was the wild horses' natural predator."

Traditionally ranchers haven't had much time for anything that competes with them for resources. It's not uncommon to find coyote carcasses draped over barbed-wire fences, as if Westerners had gone trolling for whatever offended their souls and, unable to shoot the wind, turned their ire on something more tangible. In February 2006 the Sportsman's Warehouse in Reno, Nevada, sponsored a competition in which the varmint hunter who brought in the most proof—such as the jaws of coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions—would win a boat. Around the same time several wild horses were also shot, even though mustangs have been federally protected since 1971—under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act—from capture, branding, harassment, or killing. (It was largely the efforts of a Nevadan, Velma Bronn Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, to bring the plight of mustangs to public attention that led to passage of the act.)

You can outlaw cruelty, but you can't outlaw the culture that spawned that cruelty. Wild horses around the Rock Springs area (where Dot is from) have been killed in greater numbers than anywhere else in the country. It's impossible to know if the deaths are the deliberate work of ranchers fed up with the pressures on their grazing or of careless young men with too much time on their hands. In the spring of 2005 two Wyoming men and two men from Utah roped a wild stallion and castrated the animal with a knife. The mustang bled to death, and its body was dragged to a remote draw and left to rot. All four men were apprehended, convicted of misdemeanors, given six-month suspended jail sentences, and ordered to pay fines of a little more than a thousand dollars each.

It's hard to conceive that anyone would kill a federally protected mustang in this way, until you take into account the anatomy of the West: little towns strung like beads along highways, and between the towns an impression of endless public lands where it's still possible to imagine getting away with anything, in part because these expanses feel as if they belong to no one and everyone all at once.

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