Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 7: Wild men and wild horses

These really are the last cowboys:                                                                           
I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below, part of  one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been re-written and reissued in paperback:        
                          
                                       Mustanging Nevada

The range as we know it wouldn't be complete without those famous itinerant workers who often own neither cows nor land — the cowboys. They originally came out of Texas, having been taught to ride by Mexicans, hardly an all-American experience; yet they evolved into an American myth of valor and individualism. In reality, they were closer to nineteenth-century hippies than to the image projected by John Wayne.
During the course of my trip I would work briefly with contemporary cowboys in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Most of them did something else for a living and wrangled on the side for friends, relatives, and themselves. With the solitude and the sense of freedom their avocation entailed came some dirt and brutality. No one who has taken part in a spring roundup will soon forget the choking dust, the acrid smell of burning hair and hide, or the moans of a calf beneath the white-hot dehorner and the castrator's blade. That is not where the cowboy legend lies, however, but in the notion of movement, risk, and an endless succession of purple mountains and green valleys. These last ceased to be a reality in much of the West soon after cows and cowboys moved into them, but no matter.
Wild longhorn cattle originally made cowboying an extremely dangerous profession. Longhorns, too, are a thing of the past, but wild horses are not. They exist in great numbers in the West, and pose some danger to those responsible for rounding them up. I heard that the men who did it were considered mavericks by ranchers and government agents who dealt with them, just as their forerunners had been.

Southeast Oregon meets Nevada in alkali flats, dry lakes called playas, and stringy mountain ranges of deceptive height and distance, furred by blue bunchgrass growing on their flanks. The valleys stretch away under sage and greasewood — and squirrel tail and Indian rice grass, if the BLM brochures are to be believed. The BLM owns 86 percent of Nevada, and a lot of the country looks very lean.
On the edge of the Great Basin, roads far from the Interstate run for miles toward some immense stony wrinkle before making an abrupt turn and running for miles more. The lights of Winnemucca, Nevada, floated in a trough of evening shadow, as I came to the end of a long day of desert driving. The casinos on the main drag cast bright nets for passing motor homes. Winnemucca was no tourist attraction, but then gambling is a local pastime in Nevada, where townsfolk drop a five-dollar bill on the roulette table as casually as some people buy a newspaper.
I parked on a side street and ate tuna fish from a can for dinner, watching cowboys and girls in Levi's jackets tromp between the pools of glitter and Winnemucca's grainy darkness. I needed a place to park and sleep, and found my way to the BLM headquarters a couple of blocks from the last casino. I woke up the next morning to a full parking lot and the sight of people working in the offices.
They were expecting me. An hour later, I rode west across more desert with a soft-spoken, intense range con who for two years had been trying to get out of Winnemucca. "If you're a GS twelve, you have to move every four or five years," he said, "or you lose your effectiveness. People at the office get used to looking at the same face. The ranchers you've trespassed think you're an SOB."
A trespass was a citation for grazing more cows on government land than were allowed; judging by the view, any stock at all should have constituted trespass.
He said, "What can I tell you about Nevada? It has its share of unconventional people, is the main thing. We've got outlaws and renegades right here. They stab people, steal things, run mustangs."
Each of the six BLM management areas in Nevada is larger than Massachusetts, and each harbors wild horses that have to be rounded up. That requires a special sort of cowboy.
"This one's the best in the business," said the range con, indicating a collection of trucks isolated in big country at the foot of the Humboldt Range. A steel corral had been set up amidst the sage, and a few lone riders sat casually on their cow ponies, looking toward the mountains. We left the BLM Suburban near the road and hiked up. The contractor's name was Dave Cattoor; he was a small man with a horny hand and a slightly misaligned eye. The brim of his straw cowboy hat had been mended with epoxy, and his jacket bled goose feathers.
His lariat had a piece of chain attached to the end, for looping over the saddle horn after he roped a mustang. "It'll stay on the saddle that way," he said, to no one in particular. "Saddle might not stay on your horse, though."
He and his partner had earned half a million dollars in the last eight months. That seemed a lot of money, he said, until you realized that the weekly fuel bill for the helicopter alone was more than fifteen hundred dollars. Two had crashed since Thanksgiving. The previous year, a big semi belonging to the outfit had overturned in northern Nevada, and Cattoor and his men had set up a corral beside the highway and winched forty live mustangs out of the wreckage.
Cattoor and his partner, the helicopter pilot, paid all those expenses, plus wages and board for four men, and a bonus if things worked out well. They were paid sixty-nine dollars for each mustang they captured, and had to earn two thousand dollars a day to break even. However, they were making money. The wranglers all bunked at the Two Stiffs Motel, in Lovelock, for weeks. So did the pilot. We could hear him working the canyons, the rhythm of the engine changing as he turned and began to push the sound toward us.
"Here he comes," said Cattoor. "Get behind the horse trailer and stay out of sight."
The chopper flew low to the ground, while half a dozen horses raced ahead of it. They passed a mile to the north, bound for another canyon, but the chopper flanked and gradually turned them. They came charging into full view, coats dark with sweat. Cattoor had tied his horse behind the trailer and led a pony down to the open end of the corral, camouflaged with hay bales and sage. He crouched, waiting for the herd.
"That's the Judas horse," the range con said. The Judas horse stood patiently while the wild ones — a bay stallion, three mares, and three ponies — charged past. They wheeled as the chopper cut them off and drove them back toward the trap.
Cattoor released the Judas and it trotted obediently between the fences, followed by all but the stallion. At the last moment it turned and reared, making for the narrow slot between iron bars and that clattering machine. I could see the pilot clearly now inside his glass bubble, in a Windbreaker over an old plaid shirt, faded Levi's, and boots, a technological cowboy unhappy with this recalcitrant stallion forty feet from his rotors. Even I could tell that the horse was not going into the trap.
Men rose up with a long tarpaulin and ran across the mouth of the trap, cutting the rest of the horses off from escape. The stallion charged the helicopter. The pilot performed a sleight of hand inspired by the vision of a severed equine head, buckets of gore, a broken rotor blade, and oily black flames. The chopper swung heavily to port — reeled, really —the pilot silently screaming at an animal that had not known of his existence half an hour before.
Out of my peripheral vision charged two riders, leaning forward in their saddles, at a clip not commonly seen outside racetracks and the speeded-up versions of old TV Westerns. Men and horses seemed to vibrate with the effort, over rough country full of prairie dog holes. The stallion disappeared in a draw, followed by the riders, then emerged, a little smaller, the men seemingly close enough to reach out and put a hand on that sweaty flank. One tossed his lariat and missed, then Cattoor tossed his and the stallion came up hard at the end of it, pawing the air.
The range con beside me said, "Goddamn, he got him." The lariat cut off the mustang's breath, bringing it gradually to its knees. It rolled over, and Cattoor dismounted and cautiously approached. With a hank of rope he tied fore and hind hooves together before the horse revived, then left it to be picked up when the truck came around collecting hog-tied animals as if they were battle casualties.
"That Judas horse almost ironed me out," Cattoor said a few minutes later, seeking shelter in the horse trailer from some rare Nevada rain. The horse had kicked at him when he released it. Another BLM agent had brought more observers to the roundup. One was a wild horse advocate from Austin, Texas, named Deedee. She stood for a while with her hands deep in the pockets of her jeans, watching Cattoor. Then she told him that she had a special interest in his profession, being a founder of the American Mustang and Burro Association, which was a relative newcomer to the extensive wild horse lobby.
"We have members in thirty-eight states," she said. "We're one of the fastest-growing wild horse interest groups."
Someone said, "It ain't supposed to rain in Nevada."
Deedee's organization had joined the much larger American Wild Equine Council, and had paid for her to fly to Nevada. In addition to exercising influence there, she was on the lookout for another mare for her Texas household. She planned to adopt one of the mustangs. "We like the idea of horses running free, their manes flying in the wind," she said.
The range con later told me he badly wanted out of wild horse work, one of the most time-consuming and frustrating tasks in the BLM. "You can't imagine how much coordination goes into it."
I asked how many roamed Nevada. He thought there might be as many as forty thousand.
"Forty thousand?"
Mustangs are destroying what's left of the range, he said, but public interest groups prevent the government from dealing with them the way it deals with other, less harmful creatures. Coyotes are shot from helicopters or poisoned, but wild horses roam free, eating four and five times as much of the sparse ground cover as a cow. Some are trapped and shipped to feedlots, at ruinous expense, where they live until they drop of old age. Thousands of horses behind government fences eat their way through government forage because a few people consider them related to the old Spanish war mounts, and a symbol of wildness. So they cannot be sold as meat or turned into dog food, as an old steer might be.
The horses may be adopted, and for a year government agents have to visit these orphans to make sure they are being properly cared for. This part of the program, like the expense and the ban on productive use of wild horseflesh, arouses ridicule in the men who round up mustangs.
Mustangs aren't a good symbol of the wild, unspoiled West. They have nothing to do with the conquistadors but are the progeny of mares and studs turned out on public land during the Depression, when their owners couldn't afford to feed them. A few may be descended from draft horses let loose when the cavalry disbanded in the 1890s. Yet there are sixty-nine organizations fighting for their rights.
Behind Deedee, in the corral, tattered, bony, murderous animals with bloody legs, white scars on flanks and withers, and chunks missing from their own hides routinely sank their teeth in other horses. The fighting went on more or less continuously, and not just in captivity. Now the whinnying reverberated for a mile and more, hooves rattling against the metal bars and drumming on other equine rib cages.
A wrangler urged them into the collecting pen, careful to stay clear. Once the roundup was complete, the animals would be trucked to Palomino Ranch, a BLM feedlot north of Reno set up just for mustangs, where they would be processed, inoculated, and fed. Prospective adopters occasionally came by; most were discouraged by the sight of equine orphans kicking one another and demolishing the odd horse trailer.
A little mare lay in the weeds. A wild horse had stood on her neck until someone noticed and moved him. Now the mare's eyes assumed a terminal glassiness.
"Shock," the range con said.
"Our sign fell down," said one of the cowboys.
He dragged the dead horse away, tied to the pickup, and left her in a sage clump where predators would take over.
I later found out that in fiscal 1985 the BLM had spent $17 million on wild horses. Congress had passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act fifteen years before, at the urging of the wild horse lobby, stipulating that mustangs had a place on the range. The BLM operates its wild horse program under a continuing resolution; the program includes squiring around visiting journalists and horse lobbyists, holding public meetings, hiring permanent wild horse and burro specialists, conducting environmental studies and horse counts, and hiring cowboy entrepreneurs like Dave Cattoor. It also involves publishing expensive brochures that reflect the political reality of wild horse sentiment: "Like the relics left by ancient Indian tribes," says the BLM's Special Wild Horse Issue of Our Public Lands, "and the still visible ruts made by wagon trains, wild horses and burros are important links to our heritage." The wild horse program provides high visibility for the BLM's new role as preservationists at relatively little cost, while overgrazing, mining, and timbering continue.
Cattoor asked the BLM range con for a time extension. Ordinarily roundups stopped at one o'clock, to keep the wild horses from overheating, but it was damp and cold now, and Dave had not made his minimum. The range con radioed the BLM's wild horse specialist, who was sitting in his Suburban down on the highway, and got permission. Within half an hour the chopper was pushing forty more mustangs down out of the Humboldts.
A BLM investigator with a carbine under the seat of his Bronco would spend the night there, to guard the herd from renegades. The horses would be loaded and trucked the next day. Dave and the others drove back to Lovelock, and I followed them. They seemed close to the real notion of cowboys, in a state that in one way, at least, closely approximated the Old West: Nevada was still largely unfenced. I suspected that the men who went after mustangs were similarly unrestricted, but my questions about their occupation were met with disbelief, and amusement. Cowboys don't like talking about what they do when they are doing it, because the work is hard and exacting. They don't like talking to strangers about it when it's over, because those who have never done it can't imagine what it's like. Also, cowboys see almost everybody else as aliens, opposed to their way of life or, at best, unsympathetic.
We ate a quick meal full of cryptic references and plate-rattling silences in Lovelock, around the corner from Rose's Chapel of Love.
"Some guys say they dally-rope mustangs," said a wrangler. "Sure, and watch their fingers fly off."
"I used a sloppy loop on that ole chicken-necked sorrel." 
"You think that tarp'll hold 'em if they decide to turn around?"
"Sure it will."
"When they put the hammer back," said Cattoor, "you'll know it."
Talk turned to recreation. Someone said, "I hear they're having them camel races in Virginia City this weekend."
"I didn't see any camels last year, but I saw a lot of drunk people."
"They had some mighty friendly whiskey up there. Wasn't nobody on the fight, or nothing."
"I told myself then," said Cattoor, "that if I was ever in Nevada when the camel races were going on, I'd be there."
"Not many colts today," said Jim Hicks, the chopper pilot. His face and arms were covered with scar tissue left by burns, and the backs of his hands bore the permanent imprint of bandages. "Mountain lion's working the hills, or maybe a human type." 
"You said you couldn't herd no more," said Dave. "Then you came down with a whole shitload of mustangs. That's attitude improvement."
They had been working together for eight years and had collected twenty-five thousand wild horses. Jim had flown in the Vietnam War, doing low-level reconnaissance over the Cambodian border in the late sixties. Back in this country, he flew predator control over public lands in the West. One night when driving a fuel truck outside Elko, Nevada, bound for his helicopter, he blew a front tire and the truck turned over. Gasoline covered the highway and ignited. He crawled out the window and through the flames in a T-shirt; the only part of him that wasn't burned was the palms of his hands.
When he got out of the hospital, he tried selling asphalt roofing but couldn't stand it, and was soon back in the wild horse business. "There's a challenge to this. These old horses are wild, and smart. You can't fly a helicopter like a cutting horse — it's too hard on the machine. And once those horses realize a helicopter can't hurt 'em, then you're in trouble. Then you need a roper."
"It's high risk," said Dave. "It's hard to work around wild horses day after day and not get hurt. You've got to go full speed over them dog holes. These old horses kick and bite. We've been lucky." 
"Been a bad year for helicopters, though. In November I had engine failure at forty feet. Rotors cut off the tail boom when I hit. That's standard. We had it rebuilt, and the exact same thing happened two months later."
I asked how he had escaped unhurt.
"Oh, you just wait for things to stop flying around. Then you jump out."
"The insurance companies don't love us no more," Dave said. "The premiums are horrendous. Sometimes we don't collect from the government until we're sixty thousand dollars in debt. The credit card people get mighty nervous," he added, handing his American Express card to the waitress.                                                     

They were up before dawn, a Saturday, eating sticky buns out of cartons tossed onto pickup dashboards, and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, racing for the Humboldts. I rode with Cattoor. The horses would be shipped to Palomino Ranch that day, and the state brand inspector was already at the corral when we arrived, checking the few brands among the herd and squirting these horses with gentian violet paint, so they could be picked out later.
While setting up the loading chutes, Dave talked about mustangs. He had never seen one made into a decent mount. Mostly they were "chicken feed horses," best used in processed pellets, except that the mustang lobby had made it impossible to productively use the animals.
At one point the government had attempted its own roundup in Colorado, Dave said. "I told 'em I wanted the contract, and they said no, we want to learn how to run horses. I said your life's not long enough. But they did it anyway and spent about a million dollars to get seven hundred horses. The ones they couldn't catch they shot."
Dave's driver backed the semi across the desert and up to the chute, and the wranglers started prodding the horses into the trailer. Halfway into the first load a big mare reared, driving its head against the metal cover of the trailer, and collapsed.
"Horse down!"
"She'll get up again."
But she didn't. It lay amidst clambering hooves, its neck bent double, evidence of the delicacy of the equine spine. A short, sturdy, blond wrangler named Scott climbed in with a length of chain, drove the others back, and wrapped it around the rear hooves. It took three men to drag the mare through the straw and fresh manure. The animal's head dangled over the lip of the trailer like a fish, then its body sprawled onto the ground, awkward in death. Dave wrapped the chain around its neck and dragged it off behind a pickup, onto a sage flat, the mare's legs moving as if in a dream of trotting.
The truck rolled off toward Reno and another took its place. Horse hooves drummed on the metal floor of the trailer. Occasionally I could hear wind whistling in the hollow ends of the metal poles, and the sound of childish laughter. A rancher had brought his wife and kids up to watch, joining two BLM range cons, the wild horse specialist, the investigator, the brand inspector, a TV cameraman and reporter, and one print journalist. The wild horse advocate had gone back to Texas.
"It's a goddamn carnival," Dave said. "Some days you can walk among the horses and they'll never touch a gate. But, oh, they're skittish today."
The second semi was gone by one o'clock. The rest of the catch went into a spare corral on the neighboring ranch, where the trucks were kept. The rancher wanted the mustangs off his grazing allotments and his neighbors', and was very accommodating to the contract cowboys.
We gathered, during a sudden cloudburst, to water the mustangs and the working horses, and to scatter alfalfa over the ground. The cowboys' boots were caked with mud — gumbo, they called it. Then they stood around Dave's pickup, cutting slabs of Spam with folding knives and sorting out the rest of the day.
A young wrangler named Bob took off for Lovelock in another truck. Greg, the only one wearing specs, got a chance to fly with Jim, who had to deliver the chopper to town for a flywheel inspection. Greg seemed thrilled at the prospect of hopping over the Humboldts, although the sight of those dark canyons would have discouraged most prospective passengers.
"The wind up there almost ate my lunch today," Jim said.
Four of us piled into Dave's front seat, to go back to the horse trap, where the helicopter was parked. Dave offered to race Jim and Greg to town, they in the chopper, we in the truck. When Jim accepted the challenge, Dave let them out half a mile from the lonely glass bubble parked in the cheat grass, to give us a head start.
"You son of a bitch," said Jim.
Dave's pickup flew over the empty road. "They'll be sitting on the runway before we get out to the highway," he said, but I wondered. The fog and the rain higher up looked grim.
"Do you think of sixty-nine dollars every time you catch a mustang?" I asked.
"I usually don't even count 'em. I just do as good as I can, and at the end of the season we work it all out and see where we stand."
He lapsed into one of his characteristic ten-mile silences. We were on the Interstate before he spoke again. "I've been on the prod since June. I've been away from home so goddamn much. My kids are old now, they're doing their own thing." His daughter was married, his fourteen-year-old son helping look after 153 cows on the Cattoor place in Colorado. That sounded tame compared to life in Nevada, and a long way off. He wouldn't be back there before November, ten thousand mustangs to the good.
We could see the other side of the Humboldt Mountains now; it looked just as stormy. If Dave was worried about the helicopter he didn't show it. "It's hard catching horses in that rough old country," he said, with affection. "I like the helicopter, and I like working the horses. I'm doing what I want to do."
Outside Lovelock, the clouds broke up. We looked over to see Jim and Greg flying along beside us, grinning. The storm had tied the race, forcing them around the mountains, and they sailed off toward the airport.
The truck drivers had delivered their loads to Palomino Ranch. The one named Mike had spent the rest of the afternoon lying around the Two Stiffs, drinking wine coolers. He greeted us from the open motel door, his capped teeth shining in the setting sun. Some days he made two and even three round trips in the big semi, over alkali roads that in dry weather turned him white from head to toe.
Dave went to his room and stripped. There were clothes piled on the floor, empty potato chip packages, and no mementos. Dirt ringed Dave's neck, eyes, and wrists, and caked the backs of his hands. He stepped into the bathroom for a shower, and emerged with wet hair carefully combed. When Jim arrived Dave was sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping the brim of his good felt Stetson with the damp towel.
He said, "You better hurry up."
"Oh, shit," said Bob, who was standing in the door nursing a can of Michelob. "We're going to Reno!"
I got a head start in my van, but they passed me twenty miles west of Lovelock, doing ninety: two pickups with three men to a front seat. I saw Mike tip up another wine cooler. I lost them somewhere east of Fernley, in big sage country with perpendicular rocks looking black in the shadow of mountains — populated, I now knew, with a lot of wild horses. .
I caught up with the cowboys in Reno, at the Western Village Casino, behind the 76 Truck Stop. Their pickups were parked randomly at the casino door, the beds full of lariats, baling cord, plastic buckets, and bits of chain, the cabs littered with cups, chewing tobacco pouches, and empty wine cooler bottles. Inside, Mike drifted among the two-dollar blackjack tables, cradling his wine cooler, beaming at all the action. The others sat in a tight group next to the slot machines, drinking beer.
Dave slapped two keys into Jim's palm. "Two double beds in each room," he said. "We going to Virginia City?"
They had driven two hundred miles that day already, to work and back, and another seventy miles to Reno. Mike had driven twice that, in the company of fifty mustangs. Now they got into the pickups and happily drove another twenty tortuous miles into the mountains.
I rode with Bob, Jim, and Greg; Bob steered with great authority although he had been drinking Michelob for five hours. ''I'm definitely not getting drunk tonight," he said, and then amended that slightly. "I hope they don't have no Everclear where we're going. I love that stuff. A hundred and fifty percent grain alcohol — God, it's got a kick. You can pour some in a Styrofoam cup, and seven seconds later the bottom'll fall out."
It was dark when we arrived. Virginia City had spent itself that day on exotic animal races and booze. A few tourists and more drunks tarried on the plank sidewalks of what had been the gateway to the greatest gold bonanza in the West — the Comstock Lode. Virginia City in the 1860s had offered the finest collection of gartered women and rot-gut booze east of the Sierra Nevada, as well as a chance to get rich or at least, as Mike said, to get interesting.
Camels were bedded down next to the parking lot, looking like bizarre stuffed animals in Virginia City's fluorescent lighting.
"There's a bunch of sulkies." Jim pointed to the wheeled carts. "They must pull 'em with the camels."
"The sulkies are for the ostriches," said Greg.
We all gathered on the main street, in a cold wind, watched by a pair of skeptical deputies: five cowboy hats and one Cat hat, belonging to Mike, that said "Older Men Need Love, Too," and one bare head. Scott steered Mike up the street, toward a Chinese restaurant, the only one still open. Jim kidded Dave about the lack of action in Virginia City, but carefully; Dave's eyes narrowed to slits in the glare of the red-flocked dining room. Waitresses and a handful of patrons watched apprehensively as Scott and Greg maneuvered Mike among the tables and propped him in a chair.
"Can we get some groceries pretty quick?" Dave asked a waitress; he was ready to go back to Reno, but people had to eat. Dave was the titular head of the family, so ordered for everybody. "Where's that other guy?" he said, meaning me. I was not part of the outfit but had attached myself in such a way that he felt responsible. He had spent some time with me but didn't remember my name — not because of unfriendliness, but a simple matter of priorities. He knew the names of the men he worked with, and after that recognition of the rest of the world fell off rapidly.
Mike leaned toward me, displaying his dentures. "You gon wri a ni stor bou our lives," he said, nodding. "Tha gon be rea ni." The vegetables Hunan, fried shrimp, and Mo-shu pork went around once and disappeared. Mike slept with his head near the stack of empty platters. Greg made the sole comment upon the food — "That's the hottest fucking mustard I ever tasted" — and then we were leaving, Scott steering Mike back toward the door and the waitress chasing Dave with his American Express card. They had to be back at the Humboldts the next day and they weren't going to waste Saturday night savoring foreign food in a dead town.
Half an hour later we were in the Red Rose, in Reno, a cavernous dance hall where couples in Western gear two-stepped and Cotton-eyed Joed to music from a live band that included a fiddle. We had a round of drinks, but before they were finished Dave was leaving, bound for Whiskey River and more action. We piled back into the pickups. At Whiskey River Dave danced with a younger woman; he seemed competent but a bit stiff amidst the jostling bodies and was smiling tightly. His wranglers elbowed in at the bar. The other men already there wore yoked shirts and boots, and some sported cowboy hats with feathers in the bands and had snuff can imprints in their back pockets. But they were for the most part car and appliance salesmen, and they seemed profoundly uneasy in the presence of these hard little cowboys and their loud talk.
Dave had enough of Whiskey River after two songs, and so it was back to the Red Rose. Now most of the available women were gone, and the band was squeezing out fiddle music too fast to dance to, trying to end the night with a decent frenzy. A blonde in tight jeans approached our table, wearing Greg's cowboy hat; she had met him in the parking lot, and he had gone off with her girlfriend after asking the blonde to hold his hat. She danced with all of us, including Jim, who said he did not dance, pressing herself confidently against men who had not seen much of women in the last few months.
Her friend showed up with Greg, and the girls escaped giggling through the emergency exit. "She gave me her phone number," Greg said, but he had forgotten it. "I've got to start packing a pencil."
It was late. No one had a girl to take back to one of those double beds, but no one seemed to care much. Mike was sleeping in one of the locked pickups. Tomorrow it was back to Lovelock and from there to the wild horse pens, to provide more water and alfalfa. Nowadays most wrangling involves mechanized chores on marginal or tax-deductible ranches, without much excitement. But these men bore some resemblance to the cowboys who had pushed herds north from Texas across the land that belonged to no one, just for the hell of it.
The work was still dangerous at times, difficult and unconventional, and they thrived on it; yet the institution of mustang management — the money spent, and the protection of wild horses — dismayed and disgusted them. The irony was that mustangs and cowboys were both remnants of an age perceived as glorious and reflected in the odd longings of people gathered in smoky dance halls, in the shadow of dry mountains.                                                    

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