Lawrence Russell

Gota: message found on a riderless horse

§§ If you should find and read this, please convey it to the proper authorities.

It was in the year 1847 that I accompanied my husband the Baron Manfred on his journey through Mexico in his desire to retrace the path of Cortez the Conqueror from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Although this is the stated reason on the visa applications, the real intent of the journey was to find feral horses deemed to be descendants of the original Andalusian stallions brought into Mexico during the Conquest. Manfred hoped to cross-breed one or two with his German mares in order to create a new horse with fantastic endurance and great survival capabilities. Manfred was on a retainer from the Fieldmarshall Archduke Albrecht, a senior military commander for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so this was a mission of great financial and political importance.

As for myself, what can I say? I was young, although an experienced horsewoman, the daughter of an aristocrat, and a Baroness by recent marriage, longing for adventure.

Of course the conditions were beastly, and the heat was greater than anything I had experienced in Europe. Of course it was dangerous, as there was an enduring civil unrest, and the threat of outright war with the United States in the northern region. Where people lived, there was an insidious anarchy, and where they didn't, there were bandits, especially in the passes of the eastern sierra. We were supported by my husband's aide-de-camp, Major Keller, who was famous in court circles for his exploits in the The Sulphur War as a mercenary for the King of Naples, and also for his recent intelligence work in Brazil which led to the ousting of the madman Pedro 1.

Poor Keller. He was an excellent horseman and an excellent shot, yet he was the first to lose his life. I think of him with fondness.

We made some calls at some of the larger haciendas near the coast to inspect their horses and while there were some beauties, none were of recent feral stock. The general opinion was that we had to go a long way to find mestenos and going to such places wasn't wise. Mexico was a country of shadows and machetes, ghosts and madness.

Manfred decided to leave Mexico City out of the itinerary, if indeed it was ever really included in his plan. A priest at the mission of San Pedro told us that there was a large herd of wild horses on the high desert plateau, and, after settling on a guide -- a peasant who looked more Indian than white -- whom the priest swore was trustworthy, we set out for the North.

Trustworthy? Can anyone who looks like an animal be trustworthy? Religion had merely given him a sun tan, not a soul. We called him Nocho because he was so dark and haunted.

Ecce homo! exclaimed Manfred as we followed Nocho along a mountain path. Once I was a monkey, but now I am an ape!

Don't be so unkind, Baron, I said. This Mexican will make you rich.

I will make myself rich, Ursula my dear, said Manfred. Does he even know what a horse is?

In South America some Indians think the horse is a kind of Spaniard, said Keller. They're afraid of them, sometimes worship them.

Worship a Spaniard? said Manfred.

Only if he is a horse, said Keller.

Any old horse, Major? said Manfred.

No, just a criollo, said Keller. A Spanish mongrel so unique as to be pure.

Ja, said Manfred. This is good. Let us find this pure horse, this... this god.

Blasphemy came easily to Manfred, a graduate of Heidelberg and Vienna, a convert to science who thought breeding was everything... which is why, when things got rough, he shot the burro that Nocho rode so comically yet so skilfully through the pine forests and the cactus meadows. There was a reason, of course. The animal collapsed in a high mountain pass, probably from altitude sickness. Manfred proposed to cut an incision in the roof of its mouth to let it bleed and relieve the pressure on the brain, but Nocho would have none of it, proclaimed the burro to be merely sleeping, fatigued following our long ascent.

Impatient to move on, and contemptuous of Nocho's superstition, Manfred shot the unfortunate creature. It was a terrible mistake, even though Manfred offered Nocho one of our spare Westphalians.

Come on, my good fellow, men ride horses, said Manfred. You are a man, yes?

Nocho's dark eyes and sagging face seemed both hateful and sad. He said something neither I nor the Baron could understand.

He says Jesus rode a donkey, said Keller. That's true, isn't it?

Manfred laughed derisively.

And because he rode a donkey, he was crucified, said Manfred.

He drew his Ruhr hunting knife from its saddle sheath, waved it deftly left and right, inscribing the legionnaire's cross in the air. He said, let us now eat Jesus.

Yes, we were hungry and the game in this arid desert region had been hard to come by, but to tell the truth, I think Mexico had affected Manfred's mind. Was it the altitude in the sierra or tainted water or the unrelenting sun or simply the onset of hunger? From the outset our purpose was to live completely off the land, as would our horses, and there wasn't much in this land that we could safely eat. Nocho did well, of course, as he would draw from the cactus and the yucca leaves, and even found rabbits where our bullets only found stones. We ate rabbit, of course, but the juice of the prickly plants gave us diarrhea. Our horses did quite well too, considering, and we'd only lost one, who panicked and somehow slipped her leash, and fell fatally down a long rocky slope. We started with three spares, so we still had five horses, two stallions and three mares.

So we ate the burro and for a short time felt the better for it. The strange angles of the landscape with its precipitous gorges and phantom rivers, collapsed mountains and prehistoric boulders became less daunting, although we saw nary a horse on a sun scarred ridge or a running posse raising a dust storm on the vega. But we were told by the priest that it would take ten days or more and it was more.

At least I was wise enough to wear a sombrero and not dress like a debutante, and of course I rode full-saddle, as this country had no society and to do otherwise would've been stupid. Even the women of the haciendas near the coast rode full-saddle, and no one considered them whores for doing so. In Europe, women have been pedigreed into objects of furniture, domesticated dolls who balance side-saddle on a horse and even in the drawing room. If women are the left hand of men, then who is the left hand of women? The horse? Fortunately commonsense prevailed in our family. I was taught to ride by the famous Countess Dora von Ebbing, my father's mistress. At the time she held the record for cross-country endurance riding and she certainly didn't do this riding side-saddle.

For a while Nocho walked in front of us, his pockets weighed down with stones, which was some sort of a symbolic act to ward off pain, fatigue and sorrow. It seemed silly to me, although the sight of him hunched over in a half-human trot made me feel guilty. Some of the going was very steep and treacherous, so much so that we had to dismount and hold onto the tails of our horses, allow them to lead us along as we followed our moaning guide.

We came to a place where there was a painting on the rock wall and Nocho indicated that this would be a good place to camp. At least there was some relief from the sun here and there was a small mountain stream winding through the rocks. Nocho said this is where the horses were, the legendary Conquistadors who migrated through the canyons to the plains of the North. We looked around for droppings, although none were immediately apparent. But Nocho insisted this was the place, and, as if to prove it, pointed to the primitive painting on the rock.

This is the land of the Zopi, said Keller. The painting shows the serpent and the sun. See? One eats the other, becomes an interchangeable entity known as Crotalus, I think.

You can see all this? I said.

It's a persistent myth among the Indians of the Americas, said Keller. I first heard of it in Brazil.

They are children, said Manfred.

Ask Nocho if the Zopi are dangerous, I said.

Keller could speak the sort of Spanish that Nocho spoke, although I must say it never sounded like Spanish to me.

No, said Keller. The Zopi are a mystical tribe, few in number.

Mystical? said Manfred. Does this mean no guns, no pistols?

Nocho spread his arms.

They can fly, said Keller. And they can change themselves into stones.

I must admit we laughed.

Mien gott, said Manfred. We could be in India or Africa. Who do they worship? The horse?

Nocho shrugged, said maybe some worshipped the horse, but the old ones worshipped the snake.

Some worship the horse, some worship the snake, said Manfred. An interesting dichotomy of reform and tradition -- like Luther and the Pope, yes?

Geschichtlichkeit, said Keller. As history moves, so moves the mind.

I never liked Hegel, said Manfred. I yawn, sir.

Don't be so rude, Manfred, I said. Admit it, you don't like any philosophers. You prefer men of action, like yourself.

I don't deny it, said Manfred. Napoleon is my man.

But Napoleon lost, I said.

He had the wrong horse, said Manfred. The failure of the Moscow march was an equestrian failure. The wars of the future will be won by he who has the best horse.

Waterloo? I said. Was that an equestrian failure too?

You're too pretty for sarcasm, darling, said Manfred. You know very well what my purpose is. If I could make a gun fire two bullets a second for thirty seconds, I would, and I would be rich. But I am a horseman, and I know I can breed a horse than can run forever on nothing. That's how I will get rich.

Major, do you believe my husband is in this for the money only? I said.

I hope so, said Keller. I'm counting on it.

She thinks I'm an idealist, said Manfred. That I breed for an ideal.

Of course there is an ideal, said Keller. The schnelle truppen.

Fast, mobile troops. Imagine a horse that can carry a cavalryman from Vienna to Naples on almost no food or water, said Manfred. Yes, that's an ideal.

Or pull a canon anywhere in half the time it takes now... Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, said Keller. A fast moving strike force -- the schnelle truppen.

Yes, the schnelle truppen, said Manfred. But I dream of bigger things, Keller. Say I can breed a horse that can ride around the world and live to an old age afterwards, that would be something.

Such were the conversations as the camp fire dwindled and the stars turned. Yes, it was rough, and my hands had quietly turned coarse and masculine, despite my gloves. Well, I was dressed as a man, although any man who really is a man would've seen through my disguise, I suppose.

I enjoyed grooming the horses but as for checking their shoes, I left this to the men. The horses came to us with no names from the military horse academy, something Manfred preferred, as he believed names were for survivors only. But when we sailed from Trieste, they did have names of a sort: M 1, M 2, M 3, and so on. While "M" stood for "military" (supposedly), Manfred and Keller insisted that the letter stood for Metternich, our famous foreign minister and de facto ruler, as everyone knows the current Emperor is feeble-minded.

I admire the Minister, said Keller. But I worry about the Empire.

We live in dangerous times, said Manfred. Those who have nothing are united in common envy, and those who have anything are united in common fear.

So what is the solution? said Keller. Metternich can't live forever.

Expansion, said Manfred. Mexico.

Invade Mexico? said Keller. Could we do such a thing?

Bloodlessly, said Manfred. One day it will happen, Keller.

Keller nodded slowly, then said, is there a second agenda to our mission, Baron? Something for the Minister, perhaps?

No, Keller, said Manfred. We look for a horse, not a country.

The advice we had been given was to wait in this place, because sooner or later the Conquistadors would appear, drawn by the scent of our mares carried by der Fohn, the warm wind that flows over the plateau. The horses or the Zopi, and who was to say they weren't already watching us? Nocho said we were being stalked by a jaguar and indeed our horses were nervous. Keller went looking for it and fired a few futile shots at something -- he wasn't sure what -- before he returned and decided the sights on his rifle were aberrant.

Manfred had obtained two of the latest von Dreyse needle rifles just before leaving Austria through his connections in Prussia, so neither he nor Keller were completely familiar with these weapons. Could this have had anything to do with what happened next? Keller decided to use a distant rock as a target to re-set his sights, but to our lasting misfortune shot an Indian in the process.

Keller was stunned.

Zopi, said Nocho.

He was a rock, said Keller. I swear it.

The Indian was an old man or an old something, as he looked barely human. He was cloaked in a bear skin with feathers on the arms as if he had pretensions of flight, and his eyes were the eyes of a coyote. In truth, I had never seen anyone like him, and in death he looked ectoplasmic, an evil spirit from another world.

It had to be done, said Manfred. He was frightening the horses.

It wasn't intentional, said Keller. I tell you, I fired at a rock.

So the fool crossed your line of fire, said Manfred. Question is, are there more?

The men scouted around while I stayed with the horses. They found no one, no Zopi, although I had an uneasy feeling as I looked at the rocks around us, surrendering to the superstition that indeed the Zopi could masquerade as rocks, and as three buzzards gathered and circled in the sky, I wondered if they were actually Zopi too.

We buried the Indian in a rock cairn, then decided to continue on. By this time Nocho had deserted. He took Keller's rifle with him, perhaps as compensation for services rendered, or for some superstitious belief in its power, as he certainly didn't have the proper ammunition for it. No one saw him slip away, and of course Manfred, with his easy arrogance, didn't care. In my mind, he would have killed the Mexican sooner or later anyway. While Keller had been upset at the accidental killing of the Indian, Manfred was actually jealous that it wasn't he who pulled the trigger.

So an Indian is dead, he said. And the ape has fled. Ursula, write this down in your journal.

I don't like it, Baron, I said. What if we're attacked?

We shall make sure that we aren't, he said.

Keller was aggrieved over the loss of his gun.

That dog, he growled. What use is it to him?

Proof of your crime, Major, said Manfred. He's a moralist.

Manfred was being facetious, naturally, although Keller was in no mood to make light of the incident.

I'll hunt him down, said Keller. He can't have travelled far.

Forget about him, said Manfred. You didn't like that gun anyway. Let us leave the mountain, get on with business.

We walked our horses down. The view was large, the largest I have ever seen, with a long horizon and peculiar cloud in the sky. It was like a horse shoe, with dark edges embracing a pool of blue. In the far distance, spikes of lightning struck downwards with no sound, no rolling thunder or otherwise, such was the size of the vista.

It was an arid vega, spotted with sage and broken by low ridges and sand gullies, and occasional rock formations that reminded me of monuments. It was a place Faust would've been happy in, a space between heaven and hell. Goethezeit.

And then we saw what we had come here for.

Goethezeit, rosszeit. How can I describe to you the first sighting of a herd of these magnificent horses running? As seen from a height looking down upon the desert plain? As swiftly feral and free as a flock of birds, their long black manes flowing in the wind, led by the dominant stallion, weaving through the boulders and the dunes in a blur of dust. Here, on this desolate plateau, is no European landscape, where animals are the servants of men, yoked and confined, intimidated and predicated. Here the horse is in its prehistoric element, a mythological creature. The Mexicans call them Mestenos, the Americans, Mustangs. Manfred calls them Conquistadors. But as I watched, I became converted to the primitive idea that this animal, this creature, this ideal, is a gott or a vessel for a gott.

Our eyes glistened in professional anticipation as we noted the primitive markings and colors. Most were dun reds or grulla tans, although some were black and some were white, and an occasional silver ghost. The faces had dorsal stripes, like the long masks of Greek theatre or African warriors. Long manes, slim bellies, lean legs, incredibly agile -- I thought I was watching the first horse outside the Gates of Eden.

But could we get close enough to capture one?

We will follow, and we will set a trap, said Manfred.

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© LR 2008