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Wild and free

AS WE GATHER today on town squares and parade down Main Street to proclaim our 229th birthday, let us pause to consider the wild horse -- the great American icon, the fleet-footed wind-drinker that our country rode in on. Pressed into service by the thousands, the wild horse blazed our trails, fought our wars, spilled rivers of blood. Often our cavalry horses were known by number only. Sometimes they had names. I speak of Comanche, a mustang that fought with Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was 1876, the year of our centennial, on June 25, that Custer made his famous last stand.

Two days later, General Terry's command arrived and saw the horror -- no survivors, to a man, and all except Custer himself horribly mutilated. Many horses lay dead or dying; some had been killed by their own men to serve as breastworks. But amid the carnage, there appeared a miracle: a badly wounded horse, bleeding from seven bullet holes, still standing with his head low, in the cottonwoods along the banks of the Little Big Horn River. Should he be shot? One man said no, perhaps longing for a survivor on this field of death, and sensing that the horse could endure.

The horse was Comanche, named, according to legend, for the courage he exhibited when a farrier removed an arrowhead from his flank after he was wounded by Indians during a previous battle. Comanche was taken by steamer to Fort Lincoln, nursed back to health, transferred to Fort Riley and retired with honors. ''. . . His kind treatment and comfort should be a matter of special pride," stated General Order No. 7. ''. . . Though wounded and scarred, his very silence speaks more eloquently than words of the desperate struggle in which all went down that day."

On July 4, 1876, as word of the Custer massacre reverberated across the land, our traditional birthday parties became assemblies of grief. But there was hope -- Comanche had lived, and through him so had the country's dream of the frontier.

Poems about the great equine warrior were penned, in honor of ''the lone survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn" -- a label that of course was not true, given that there were many Native American survivors and, as it would turn out, cavalry horses that had escaped and run off with Indian ponies, back to the range where they came from. Never to run free again, Comanche -- ''the great silent witness" -- could enter and leave his stall at will. Like many soldiers, he developed a taste for beer. In 1891, soon after the death of his long-time caretaker, he died at the age of 29.

At the time, 2 million wild horses roamed the West. By 1950, there were 50,000. Today, there are perhaps 28,000. What happened? World War I, the pet food industry, and cattle ranchers, who contend that wild horses steal food from cows, and just may, under the Bush administration, finally realize their dream of seeing wild horses permanently wiped from public lands.

In the old days they hired contractors to gun down wild horses and bring them the ears. Today, Big Beef influences senators and representatives in both parties, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that is supposed to protect the wild horse. During the Bush administration, the mustang has been hit with an onslaught of vicious legislation and voracious round-ups whose aim is to extirpate the wild horse -- federally protected since 1971 -- even if it means sending them to the slaughterhouse.

This year, 10,000 wild horses are scheduled for removal; 5,000 are already gone. Many wild horse advocates fear such a reduction will take herds to the brink of extinction. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management announced that grazing restrictions had been lifted. This is another death knell for mustangs, often fenced off from water by public lands ranchers who claim they must have it for their 3 million cows, which study after study -- including the government's own -- show are destroying the wilderness.

Two scientists have come forward and stated that the Bush administration rewrote their findings in order to lift the restrictions. When asked about the new policy, Kathleen Clarke, director of at the Bureau of Land Management, offered this: ''Grazing is a proud heritage of the West."

Alas, those who wrap themselves in Old Glory while at the same time obliterating our heritage are about to prevail. Their policies defile the four-leggeds who carried us on their backs to our home on the range. When we watch the sparks in the sky tonight, let us never forget that America was born in the fireworks of hoof to stone as the message of revolution thundered across the land. A mustang isn't just a car -- on June 25, 1876, it was the only thing standing -- and it gave us a reason to continue. Let freedom for the wild horse ring. Stop the round-ups and end the stampede. And let's all have a beer for Comanche.

Deanne Stillman, author of ''Twentynine Palms," is writing a book ''Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West."

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