Range historian J. Frank Dobie had a great affinity for horses, especially the wild horses or mustangs that roamed the American Great Plains. Among the stories he collected in his celebrated book, “The Mustangs,” were those devoted to the courage, endurance and beauty of several white stallions and their heroic efforts in avoiding capture by mustangers. In these legendary frontier accounts most of the stallions escaped because they possessed a pacing gait that enabled them to outdistance their would-be captors. Others, however, were forced in the end to choose death over the loss of freedom.
One such story, which Dobie described as being “beautiful and true to range men as well as horses,” was gathered by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton was wolf hunting on the L Cross F Ranch in northerastern New Mexico west of Clayton in the fall of 1893 when he became familiar with a mustang stallion of exceptional qualities. The story he heard differed from Dobie’s accounts in that his stallion was shiny coal-black instead of white, although he too was a natural pacer and had “thin, clean legs and glossy flanks.”
Seton’s pacing mustang was first observed as a yearling by a number of cowpunchers who made plans to catch him. Before anyone actually made an attempt, however, the colt had turned three years old and had taken charge of nine half-blooded mares that had wandered away from the ranch. Initial efforts to gather the erstwhile gentle mares were unproductive due to the black stallion’s skillful handling of them. Soon a consensus was reached that the only way to get back the valuable mares was to either catch or kill the pacer.
In December 1893 Seton set out from headquarters with the L Cross F wagon. Before he left, the ranch manager told him, “If you get a chance to draw a bead on that… mustang, don’t fail to drop him in his tracks.”
The pacer was soon sighted by one of the cowboys. Seton took his rifle and climbed a ridge expecting to take a shot, but the magnificence of the horse stopped him. He later wrote that the stallion “had heard some sound of our approach, and was not unsuspecting of danger. There he stood with head and tail erect, and nostrils wide, an image of horse perfection and beauty, as noble an animal as ever ranged the plains, and the mere notion of turning that magnificent creature into a mass of carrion was horrible.” As a result, he threw open the breech of his rifle. The cowboy with him reached for the gun, but Seton turned the muzzle to the sky, and it “accidentally” went off.
It was Seton’s only sighting of the stallion. But, while still in New Mexico, he heard other stories of attempts to capture the swift horse, and he put them in his book of animal stories, “Wild Animals I have Known,” that appeared in 1898.
Wild Jo Calone was the cowpuncher to give the most serious consideration to capturing the stallion even though most of his associates thought he was foolish to waste good men, horses, and time on an animal that probably had no value. However, when the owner of the Triangle Bar, in the presence of witnesses, offered a thousand dollars to anyone who could deliver him safely to the railroad in Clayton, Wild Jo decided it was time to move.
With an outfit of 20 saddle horses, a mess wagon, cook and a partner, he planned to walk down the mustang and his band. The mustanger’s idea was to follow the stallion on horseback at a leisurely pace until the horse got used to a trailing rider. Then he planned to continue to pressure him and wear him down so much that he would have little time to eat and drink. He then hoped to rush in and rope him.
When all was ready, Wild Jo led his outfit out of Clayton and in three days arrived at Antelope Springs, the favorite watering place of the pacer and his band. When they spotted the stallion, the horse took alarm and led his mares away at a high lope across a nearby mesa. Jo followed quickly, and as he came upon them, he slowed his horse to a walk. The stallions and mares ran again.The cowboy cut their trail at a trot as they circled to the south and caught up with them after seeral miles.He again walked quietly towards them. When they took flight, he rode back to the wagon and arranged a meeting place with the cook that would intersect with the horses’ circle.
Wild Joe trailed the horses until dark and then switched with his partner, Charley, who took after the band on a fresh horse. By now the herd was becoming accustomed to the company of a trailing horseman. They did not run as far as they had at first. Charley walked after them for a few hours in the dark, aided not only bu a sure-footed mount, but a white mare in the band that was easily spotted in the pale moonlight. Within time, he stopped, unsaddled, and laid down to sleep on his saddle by his picketed horse.
He was up at dawn and found the herd no more than a half mile away. They immediately bolted and moved westward. Charley soon saw the smoke of the outfit’s camp and upon reaching it was replaced by Wild Jo.
The pattern thus established was repeated for the next two days. The horses continued to move in a circle destined eventually to bring them back to their favorite water. Although they progressively felt more at ease with the seemingly harmless pursuers, the constant travel, even at a walk, was beginning to wear on them. They began to suffer from a slight but continuous nervous tension from the day and night pursuit.
Whereas Jo and Charley’s horses ate grain twice a day, the mustangs had to graze on the move instead of locating in a good stand of grass and eating attheir leisure. The stress also caused them to become unusually thirsty. Wild Joe allowed them to drink as much and as often as they desired, knowing full well how a running horse filled with water got still in the limbs and lost wind.
The fifth day the herd had almost reached Antelope Springs. The mares were worn out and reluctant to move in spite of the efforts of the black stallion to urge them on. Often, they were no more than 100 yards ahead of the relentless, trailing horseman. Wild Jo’s plan had been executed with only one hitch. Whereas the mares were done in, the pacer seemed to be as strong as when the chase began.
When they reached the Springs, Jo kept the herd from water for a few hours and then let them drink their fill. He soon realized that he would probably not have to rope the mares; that instead they would be easily separated from the stallion and driven to the L Cross F corral.
He therefore directed his full attention to the pacer. For the final chase he caught his favorite and fastest mount, Lightfoot. Although she was of Eastern blood, she had been raised on the plains, and Jo was confident she had the bottom to catch the stallion.
Jo took after the stallion at a run. The mustang, on discovering his pursuer, threw up his head and started off at his usual swinging pace. Jo was a quarter of a mile behind. Using shouts and spurs, the cowboy urged the mare to lessen the stallion’s lead.
The mustang led Jo across a long, grassy stretch still maintaining the same even gait. The cowboy was astonished that the distance was actually widening between them. Then, suddenly, his mare went down, the victim of a badger hole. Jo went sprawling but quickly jumped to his feet to remount.
The courageous mare had broken her right foreleg and Jo, sadly, had to put her down. As he carried his saddle back to camp, he could see the stallion striding off in the far distance unfazed by the event that had befallen his pursuer.
All was not lost for Wild Jo and Charley, though. They claimed a sizeable reward for the return of the L Cross F mares, but Jo never forgot the pacing black stallion of Antelope Springs.
Western writer/historian Stephen Zimmer’s latest book, “For Good or Bad: People of the Cimarron Country” was published last summer. He is director of the Philmont Scout Ranch’s Philmont Museum.