Lauryn, our Cloud Foundation whiz kid, and Erin, our college intern from Michigan, traveled with me from Colorado to the Pryor Mountains on July 27, 2011. It was a bittersweet journey. In the early evening we drove to the low desert country in the Pryors, knowing that two of our “greeters” at the horse range gate, Admiral and his yearling son, Climbs High (Kapitan), had been struck and killed by a drunk driver just three days before.
With a sick feeling, I drove over the cattle guard and into the horse range. I have done this at least a hundred times. But, this time was different and horribly sad. Foolishly, I hoped Admiral and his son were still alive. Maybe I’d spot them in their usual places around the little lake that leads into the Bighorn River or near Crooked Creek and the cottonwood groves where I first saw the colt I named Climbs High.
It was late in the afternoon in May of last year. I drove over the cattle guard and saw a flash of bright red in the trees to my left. I could just make out a horse getting up. The red that caught my eye, backlit in the late afternoon light, was afterbirth. A mare had just given birth! I grabbed my camera and silently slipped closer. The foal at the feet of the dun mare, Seneca, was just minutes old and still covered in the birth sack. His mother was licking the sack away. I noticed the older dun mare, Hightail, watching the new foal. She stood with Admiral and Seneca’s yearling son, Jesse James. Admiral, their band stallion, casually grazed a 100 feet or so away, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But, for me, something very special had happened.
I watched the mare lick the newborn, defend him from a curious Hightail, and then gesture and “talk” to him, telling him to get up. She nipped him gently on his back and he responded as if by magic. The wet lump jerked and then struggled to get his wobbly legs under him. He fell a few times, before rising, legs trembling. I could see he was a boy. Minutes later, when he was barely dry, Seneca surprisingly started walking up the steep hill behind the trees. The colt dutifully followed her, with the rest of the family trailing behind. I marveled at the strength of the dark bay newborn. He had not even nursed, but he was climbing a mountain!
I walked around the base of the tall hill, hoping to see them emerge on top. The wind picked up as I struggled to walk higher on the rocky slope. Then I saw them—mother and son. The colt was finally nursing.
In the Indian tradition of naming a child for a deed or trait, I began calling the colt Climbs High. I watched him that summer, growing ever stronger, rough housing with his precocious brother only to run back to Seneca when the play got too rowdy.
Climbs High survived the exceptionally rugged winter, and became a sturdy yearling. He loved to graze and travel with Admiral, perhaps pretending he was a big stallion like his powerful father. Sadly, he would never grow up, for his life was taken, as was Admiral’s in one careless, senseless act. I miss them both and hope we can adequately repay the joy they brought so many visitors by encouraging the park service to erect bigger and better signage, warning drivers that there are wild horses here and they may travel near the roadsides.
It was 2am on Sunday morning when the drunk driver struck Admiral as he stood near a stud pile just a few feet off the right-hand side of the paved road. Then the speeding truck went on to plow into Climbs High, some 100 feet beyond.
Lauryn, Erin and I traveled back to the paved highway at the tail end of our trip to the Pryors to search for the bodies of Climbs High and Admiral. We spotted Hightail and Seneca on a high hill with two bay horses. If I had not known better, I would have thought the little family was miraculously reunited. But, through our binoculars and spotting scope, we could see the young bays were Seneca and Admiral’s two-year old bachelor son, Jesse James, and his four-year old bachelor friend, Hickok.
We searched near the scene of the crime and found the remains of Climbs High first and then, some distance away, Admiral. The Park Service had drug their bodies out of sight into a gully behind tall bushes. Although difficult, actually seeing their dead bodies brought some closure for me. Now I can imagine father and son wandering in peace in some special place where they will always be together.
*If you would like to encourage the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to erect better signage to help prevent this kind of tragedy, click here.
For more photos of Admiral, Climbs High, and the rest of their family, click here.
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