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Wild Horse Annie
Dusk sneaks over the Bronn ranch. Shadows darken the Nevada hilltops, spill down their sides, and press against the bedroom window where ten-year-old Velma stands watching for mustangs.
It's almost dark. Velma knows that wild horses feel safest in the half-light. She sees them in the cool mornings when she gets up. They graze on the range that stretches flat and brown-green outside the gates of her family's ranch. When she feeds the chickens as the sun comes up, she glimpses wild horses drinking from the nearby Truckee River. The river chuckles against its banks, and red-winged blackbirds sing as if they are happy to share sunrise with the mustangs.
Velma rarely sees wild horses during the long summer days. The tang of sun-warmed sagebrush doesn't tempt mustangs as it tempts her. That scent works on her like locoweed, telling her to gallop into the wind, to run, loosening the muscles in her long, chore-hardened legs as if she were a wild horse.
Instead, when it's hot, mustangs seek cool, sheltered canyons or stand in the shadows of boulders until sunset.
Velma hopes she hasn't missed them.
Her parents had called her inside to set the table for dinner. Then she had to help wash up. She'd just finished herding her three younger siblings to baths and bed. Mama and Daddy say she is just the most responsible girl. The little ones call her bossy. Except for Ruth. She says her big sister is a perfectionist.
Velma mentally arranges her clothes, books, and pencil case so she'll be ready for school in the morning, but she can't leave the window. Not yet. She leans her forehead against the window glass, and — there they are!
Black smudges take the shape of wild horses. They drift down from the hills to the river. Moonlight glimmers on their coats. Velma can see no charging, kicking, or tossing of long manes, but she feels the mustangs' magnificence in her bones.
Why do her eyes sting with tears? Mama blames such silliness on "the blues," and Daddy says she has "growing pains," but neither of them is right. It's the mustangs. Something about wild horses touches her life of sunburn, sweat, and dirty hands with magic.
If she slid the window open, it would screech and the horses would bolt. Even though they have nothing to fear from her, they'd turn back from the river, intent on buying another day of freedom with their swift legs.
Velma sighs. If she could live with wild horses, chores and homework wouldn't exist. In their secret canyon, the horses would teach her more important things, such as how to be one with the wilderness.
Her eyes sting from staring, and night has hidden the mustangs in darkness by the time Velma turns from the window. All the little ones snuggle, sound asleep under their covers. It is time for her to do the same.
* * *
Velma Bronn was a typical Nevada ranch girl. Each morning, she and the other Bronn children rode the school bus from the family ranch into the town of Reno. But one day she couldn't climb the steps onto the bus. Her legs went weak. They wobbled and wouldn't hold her.
Her parents rushed her to the doctor's office. There, she was diagnosed with polio.
"Polio?" Her mother whispered the word, but Velma knew what it meant.
Polio was a disease that killed and crippled children. A boy in her class wore metal braces strapped to his legs with leather. He couldn't run. He certainly couldn't mount a horse. That was polio.
Her teacher said that scientists were working to find a vaccine that could wipe out polio, but so far the disease was stronger than any medicine.
Velma's parents told her they'd fight the polio. They would save her life. She stared out the car's back window as they left the ranch and drove across Nevada to a hospital in San Francisco, California.
To Velma, fighting meant punching a bully, not being wrapped up like a mummy in bandages that hardened into a cast. But that's exactly what it meant to fight polio. For six months, she could barely move. She was scared in a way she'd never been scared before. At home, if she heard a strange sound in the night, she had called Mama. When a bear's paw print showed up in the ranch yard, she'd told Dad. But the hospital was far from the ranch, and her parents couldn't be with her all the time. Even when they were at her bedside, they couldn't set her free. "Everything will be all right," they told her, but it wasn't.
On the day Velma was freed from the cast, she held on to the edge of the hospital bed. She watched her feet take careful steps. Polio hadn't crippled her. She could walk!
She stopped walking when she heard Mama gasp and saw Daddy's hands grip into fists.
Velma looked into a mirror. What had happened to her face? Although the cast probably saved her life, it had twisted Velma into such unnatural positions, her face and body were permanently misshapen.
Back at school, kids didn't even try to understand. No one protected her from bullies. Even her former friends made fun of her. The more her heart hurt, the harder Velma studied. She wrote poetry, too, and spent hours with the ranch animals. They didn't care how she looked. They just loved her kind voice and soft hands.
Smart, strong, and determined not to let her appearance dominate her life, Velma grew up and married a man named Charlie Johnston. By then, people were used to her appearance. If folks talked about her at all, they remarked on how much she could do.
Velma drove into town every day to work as a secretary. She also rode, helped Charlie run the Double Lazy Heart Ranch, and opened a day camp for children who loved horses. One morning in 1950, as she drove to work, she realized that things had turned out fine, just as her parents had promised. She rolled down her car window and let a breeze blow through her hair.
Just ahead, a truck and trailer poked along. They were in her way. Velma glanced at her wristwatch. If she didn't hurry, she'd be late for work.
She might have driven around the truck and trailer if she hadn't seen the blood. It dripped from the trailer onto the road. Velma hit the accelerator and pulled up so close to the trailer that she could make out three wounded horses crammed into its small space. Who would move horses in such terrible conditions? And why?
She followed the truck and trailer into Reno. It stopped at the livestock yards, where animals were sold for meat. They were wild horses, the driver — a stranger — told her. They were not only free for the taking off the range, but they were worth a pretty penny to the factories that made them into dog and chicken food.
That day, Velma couldn't concentrate on work. When her boss asked what was wrong, she told him: "One yearling was driven into the trap so hard his chest was just wide open." Saying the words made her feel sick.
She kept seeing the red blood and the wild mustang eyes, dull with surrender. By the time she got home, Velma was kicking herself for being so ignorant of what was happening to the wild horses she loved.
"I'd heard that airplanes were being used to capture mustangs, but it didn't touch our lives directly," she told Charlie that night, "and I pretended it didn't concern me."
Velma wasn't the sort of young woman to weep and forget. The sense of responsibility that had made her such a good big sister spurred her to find out what exactly was happening to Nevada's wild horses.
It turned out that men in small planes chased wild horses until they slowed to an exhausted trot. Then the ground crew took over. Driving pickup trucks, they chased the mustangs until a roper in the truck bed could lasso a running horse. Sometimes broken necks or legs killed the mustangs. If a horse survived, the men ganged up on the mustang, pushing it to the ground. There, all four of its legs were tied together so it couldn't escape while they went after the next horse.
Sometimes the horses were left overnight without food or water, but eventually a truck and trailer came back for them.
The "nags" were too tough to die, people told Velma. When she heard the hardy little horses called nags, jugheads, cayuses, crow bait, and words a lady shouldn't hear, she remembered the schoolyard bullies who'd called her names.
Velma hardened her heart and asked, "Then what?"
These horses still had spirit, she learned. Even as they were tugged up wooden ramps into trailers, they fought back. Once the trailer was full, the mustangs were taken to the stockyard.
Velma used her perfect shorthand to write everything down in her stenographer's pad. She had more than enough evidence to prove the cruelty against wild horses, but she didn't want to throw herself into a world of strangers who'd stare at her face and wonder what was wrong with her.
"Then don't," Charlie said, when she'd told him all she'd discovered. He didn't think there was much chance she'd listen.
"I know how the horses feel," Velma said.
She'd been taken away from her family, confined and suffering in a strange place. And she'd been bullied. The ugly difference was that the mustangs were being bullied to death.
Velma didn't stay quiet. She told her friends and neighbors what the far-off buzz of airplanes meant: greed could kill off every mustang on the range.
At first the horse hunters laughed at her. "Aw, she's just jealous," they would say, and then joke with Velma's husband. "Always room for one more mustanger, Charlie. Sure beats workin' for a living."
Charlie valued the sacredness of life. Velma knew he'd never kill for a living.
In the 1950s, most women didn't venture into business and politics. When Velma did both, the mustangers tried to drive her away with criticism. Charlie Johnston's wife was making a dang fool of him, some said. They rolled their eyes and dismissed Mrs. Johnston as a typical boo-hooing female.
Velma wasn't surprised. "A woman fighting a man's battle in a man's world ... has three strikes against her to begin with," she said.
But the ranchers underestimated her. She didn't fight with emotion. Her weapons were facts, and folks were beginning to listen to her.
That's when opponents began to play dirty. Since she had a face like a horse, they called her Wild Horse Annie. Velma didn't back down. She saw her face in the mirror every morning, and she'd been bullied before. She let her enemies know that she thought Wild Horse Annie was a fine nickname.
Dressed in a businesslike suit and white gloves, Wild Horse Annie spoke out until she got results. "No other animal in the history of our country has been so brutally exploited," she told the Nevada state legislature in 1955. She had the facts and photos to prove what she said, and the state lawmakers banned the use of aircraft and motorized vehicles to chase and capture wild horses on Nevada lands.
The law meant success, but it wasn't a solution. The wild horse killers moved their bloody roundups off Nevada state lands and onto public lands that belonged to all U.S. citizens.
"These lands are our lands," Velma told her audiences at school and community events nationwide, and many applauded, saying that even if they never laid eyes on a mustang, they wanted to know that wild horses roamed free on their lands.
Horse hunters planned to get rich by selling mustang meat. Killing for a living meant that they didn't have to plant crops, dig heifers out of snowdrifts, or go to work in an office. A couple of times a month, they drove fast trucks and lassoed broomtails.
It was an easy life, and they weren't about to let Velma stand in their way. Men muttered that the public lands were far from towns or ranches, and a lone female didn't stand a chance out there. Velma was warned to stay at home in the kitchen or she'd be shot dead out on the range.
Against the advice of friends and family, she kept speaking out for wild horses, and finally she won. In 1959, a new law made it illegal to kill or capture wild horses using motorized vehicles or poisoned water-holes — even on public land. Velma thought her work was over. She left the halls of government and went home to Nevada.
She wanted to reclaim the good life. She pictured sitting with Charlie on their front porch, listening to the coyotes sing down the moon at the Double Lazy Heart Ranch. When she reached the ranch, Velma learned that Charlie was very sick.
Now she fought for her husband.
The mustangers had been right about one thing: ranching was hard work. To make Charlie's life easier, Velma sold the ranch. She and Charlie moved into town. Instead of pitching hay and patching fences, Charlie napped and Velma tended a garden. Despite their tranquility, Charlie died of cancer, ending their twenty-seven-year marriage.
Velma grieved deeply, and when she realized that America's wild horses were still in danger — this time from ranchers! — she wasn't sure she had the heart for another fight, especially against her own people.
When the ranchers told her that the mustangs were ugly, inbred invaders gobbling up every blade of grass, Velma knew better.
She was no tenderfoot. She figured that most of her ranching friends would give her the shirt off their backs, but they were too stubborn to see that there was enough open land for cattle, sheep, wildlife, and mustangs.
"'Just get rid of them!'" she said, quoting them. "That's all the wild horse has ever known. 'Just get rid of them so the ranchers can have the land for their cattle!'" Later on, in interviews, Velma would shake her head in frustration when describing those times.
In the end, her own stubbornness made her return to battle against what she called "the indiscriminate cruelty of wild horse roundups." Armed with facts and photographs, Velma marched into government offices, but this time her rivals for legislators' attention were corporate ranchers — businessmen, really. She told herself that she was facing the same lazy men who killed for a living. They just wore better boots.
But how could she compete against men who used money and power to win arguments? After weeks of thought and late-night conversations with wild horse supporters, Velma turned to the mustangs' smallest and least likely allies: schoolchildren.
In classrooms across the country, she told children about the death of America's wild horses. She knew the power of children — good and bad. When they joined her fight, Velma knew that the horses had a chance.
Children wrote letters until their fingers turned numb. Government officials and legislators received more mail asking them to save wild horses than they did for any other single issue except the Vietnam War.
In 1971, about twenty years after Velma saw bleeding mustangs on her way to work, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act — sometimes known as the Wild Horse Annie law — passed. Its preamble told the world why American mustangs must be saved:
Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
After the act's passage, a slim, almost fragile figure approached the microphone and addressed Congress. Velma Bronn Johnston held her head as high as a Nevada mustang and said, "Decades of bloody and indiscriminate annihilation of wild horses and burros ... to make more grazing land available for domestic livestock was a black chapter in the history of man's abuse of animals."
When she died, in 1977, Wild Horse Annie hoped that history's chapter of blood and greed had ended and that mustangs would gallop free forever in their happy ending to a Western story that had begun millions of years before.
The last time I talked with Velma Johnston, we sat in a secret office, behind locked doors. Even in 1976, the year before her death, threats kept coming. She'd just learned that her name was on a hit list made by Charles Manson. She was disturbed, not because Manson was a serial killer, but because he hated her for working with the government to achieve her goal.
But then we talked about horses Velma had known. She told me about Hobo, a horse she'd loved with all her heart. We were both smiling when I got up to leave.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wild at Heart"
Copyright © 2015 Terri Farley.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Wild Horse Annie,
What It Means to Be a Wild Horse,
Why Wild Horses Are Vanishing from Wild Places,
How Wild Horses Disappear from Wild Places,
Young People Fighting to Save Wild Horses,
About the Author,
About the Photographer,