The Courage of Cloud and Encore
Dear Friends of Cloud and his Pryor family and herd,When RT Fitch offered to join me in my search for Cloud, I think we both feared the worst. Were we going to be looking for a body or a live Cloud? My friend had offered to come so I would not be searching alone. The day before he was to leave his home near Houston, Texas, I called to let him know that Nancy Cerroni had spotted Cloud alive! And she said, “It gets better.” Cloud had somehow won back his mares, Feldspar and Ingrid! And she said, “Wait, it gets better still.” He and Feldspar have a beautiful new son! Our journey morphs into a joyous search for Cloud and his family.
RT and I, with our loyal companion, Quinn, spend four days together, three of them on Tillett Ridge. Quinn is particularly fond of his new friend, RT, who serves as his “seat belt,” keeping him from sliding onto the floor board on the bumpy roads.
On all three days on Tillett, we spend time with Cloud, Feldspar, their son we name Ohanzee (“Shadow” in the Sioux language), and Ingrid. With each step Cloud takes, he lifts his back left leg high and to the side. Even when he stands still, he stomps his hoof on the ground as if responding to an electric shock. But, by the last day of our trip together, we agree that with each passing day, Cloud has visibly improved.
His son, little Ohanzee is great fun to watch. The colt is a dead ringer for his two year-old brother, Mato Ska. I regret that Ohanzee does not have the companionship of Mato Ska or his yearling sister, Encore. I know that Encore would have played with him, and shown him how fun it was to paw in mud puddles, and then roll in the dirt.
But the colt seems well equipped to entertain himself, exploring in the trees and rubbing on dead branches. Without warning, he breaks into a run, leaping over the sage. He seems like a happy little fellow.
On the other hand, his big sister is a worry to us. I wish I could report that Encore is living in peace but that is not the case. As you may remember, Doc stole Cloud’s family after an epic battle. He kicked Mato Ska out and, days later while Ann and I were on the mountain, he lost Encore to the bachelor stallions.
The yearling filly was swept away by a group of males including four year-old stallion, Knight.
When Knight was not even a year old, his mother, Guinevere, died. The colt joined up with the biggest horses on the mountain, young bachlor stallions that had grown up in the lush Forest Service lands.
Late in the afternoon of our first day, RT and I hike to find Encore grazing with Knight. Her beautiful white tail and hind legs are stained by what must have been a bout of diarrhea. About 20 yards away, two more bachelors, six year-old Inali, and the three year-old red bay, London, graze peacefully.
Then, when Inali gets too close, the situation explodes. Knight charges downhill into the much bigger Inali and the fight is on. They rear, bite, and kick. With dirt and rocks flying, they spin and rear again, screaming and pounding the air and each other with their hooves.
The brawl seems to go on forever and appears to end in a draw with Knight maintaining control of Encore. He snakes the filly away from London who moved in on Encore during the fight. Although London is no real threat, he cannot be ignored either.
Over the course of our three days on Tillett, we watch the drama continue. Each day appears to begin and end with the ever present Inali and London persistently dogging Knight and Encore wherever they go. If only Knight and Encore could sneak away.
RT and I take a break from the turmoil on Tilliett. On day three of our adventure together, we decide to take on Sykes Ridge. The spectacular ridge has a long and increasingly treacherous road but we take it very slow. When we climb up to the scenic mid-ridges, we see horses and hike out to sit and watch Corona’s band with Waif, Orion (the first 2014 Pryor foal), and his yearling brother, Norte.
We watch as Norte and Orion leave their mother and climb up on a rock outcrop where they begin to graze on the very edge of the cliff. “They’re sure close to the edge,” RT remarks. “Must be something really great to eat up there.” Both of us are worried. A misstep by either of the colts could result in a fatal fall. When Corona returns from driving away a pair of bachelors, he charges back to get his family all together. This requires getting his sons off the cliff.
He dashes at the colts with his head in the snaking posture. Norte breaks away from the drop off, but Orion seems confused. For a split second it looks as if he's actually going to to jump off the cliff. I know both RT and I gasp simultaneously. But somehow the colt spins, sending rocks over the side of the cliff, and runs downhill after his brother. We look at each other and I make some comment about Orion passing the natural selection test. I believe it's is a moment we'll never forget.
Our fourth and final day is spent on the relatively benign ridges of Tillett, once again with Cloud and his family and the other beautiful bands that live on this part of the Pryor range.
When it is time for our final drive down the mountain, I know it is hard for RT to say goodbye. The wild horses and this wondrous wilderness grab onto your heart and make you ache to return before you’ve ever left. Thank you my friend for spending this time with me.
The following week, my long-time friend, Ann Evans and I return for Cloud’s birthday. We have no plans to even attempt Sykes. Rather, we concentrate our energies on Tillett Ridge, hoping to spot Cloud’s family and Encore with Knight.
The flowers on the normally dry ridges have exploded after being buried in snow for months. Lush clumps of magenta paintbrush grow amongst white, yellow and purple flowers. Finally it feels like spring.
On our drive up, we notice Doc and the large band he has stolen from the coyote dun stallion, Jackson. As we hike toward them, we can see that Cloud’s daughter, Firestorm has foaled! As the colt totters around her, we agree the birth was likely early this morning.
All of Firestorm’s other foals have been roans, but this little one is a dun with a head a bit darker than his body. If he doesn’t roan out, we think he might look a lot like his father, Jackson, and his grandmother, Broken Bow—both are considered coyote duns.
In honor of them, we name the colt, Okomi, which means coyote in the Arapaho Indian language.
As we study the band, I notice that some members are missing. Firestorm’s yearling filly, Niobrara, and her two year-old son, Maelstrom, are not with the band! Oh no, not again, I whisper. Doc was unable to keep Encore with Feldspar and Ingrid after he battled Cloud. Now, it appears the same thing has happened with Niobrara. “Do you think she could be with her brother?” I ask Ann. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
It is likely that Doc kicked Maelstrom out as we believe he had done with Mato Ska when he took over Cloud’s band, but that does not explain what happened to little Niobrara.
We travel past the mines and higher to the open ridges of Tillett. Above the mid-Tillett water catchment we spot Encore and Knight and the ever present, Inali and London. It seems the situation is little changed, except both Knight and Inali look more beat up. Knight’s eye is nearly swollen shut, and both he and Inali are covered with scars and open wounds. How long can this go on? Inali is older, bigger and, one would think, stronger than Knight. But the dun roan has an iron will.
Knight is determined to hold on to Encore. The situation is troubling and dangerous, for both Knight and Encore.
In the evening we find Cloud and his little family. We watch the beautiful stallion closely, noting a slight hitch in his back leg but nothing like when RT and I were there. Amazing, I whisper to Ann. Cloud is beginning to regain his fluid movement, a graceful floating action that reminds me so much of his lovely father, Raven.
We laugh at Ohanzee, leaping over the sage with Feldspar and Cloud following closely behind.
As Ingrid passes, we wonder together, Is she pregnant? The little dun mare has a round belly. Maybe it’s just that there is so much to eat, I say. There is grass growing everywhere.
I’m not sure Ann is convinced that Ingrid’s robust figure is just from the unusual amount of forage.
In the days that follow we spend time watching Knight, Encore, Inali and London. Encore is still as beautiful as ever, but all this fighting has to be taking a toll on her. We see the foursome travel to the water catchment and back. When Ann hikes down to the catchment, she confirms what we suspected. It has dried up because of heavy horse use and little rain over the past few days.
That means all the horses will need to travel up the mountain to snowdrifts lingering in the dense Douglas fir forest.
Late one afternoon, we find Doc’s band again. They are less than a mile below the first big drifts. Okomi has made quite a trek for a foal only a few days old. Then I hear stallions screaming. I can’t resist the urge to follow the haunting cries. As fast as I can I hike down through a wooded ravine and up and over the next hilltop.
Mato Ska I whisper. The diminutive blue roan is with Doc’s two year-old son, Mandan, and their “protector,” Grijala. The dark bay is sparring with Hamlet. Mato Ska looks so small in comparison with the six and seven year-old Forest Service giants. You’re on your own now boy, I think sentimentally.
Ann catches up with me and we walk back to the road to find Okomi sniffing the UTV. What a difference a few days can make. Gone are the shakey legs of a newborn. Now, the colt is curious and attentive.
In time the band moves on and we trek along behind. When they veer off into the forest, we follow them into a secluded meadow where they stop to graze.
Doc seems restless and when he tries to aggressively snake Firestorm and Okomi, Aztec quickly moves between the beefy stallion and the mare and foal. She stops and glares at Doc. The stallion backs away. Very impressive, Aztec, I think to myself.
Aztec, Cloud’s long-time mare who left to join her daughter Jasmine in Jackson’s band, has never seemed particularly forceful. In this case, however, she asserts herself to protect the young foal. It is just another example of how each member of a family has an important role to play.
The band moves uphill again, and we follow them through the forest. Clusters of Pasque flowers bloom in the patches of broken sunlight. The band ends their travels at big drifts under the Douglas firs. It is absolutely quiet, save for the slurping of horses eating big mouthfuls of wet snow—a magic moment among many on the Pryors.
The sun has nearly set when we travel downhill to camp. I walk a short distance from camp and notice a small horse through an opening in the trees. I hike closer to get a better look. I’m sure it is Jackson and Firestorm’s yearling filly, Niobrara!
I watch, hoping I might spot her brother, but can see only the little filly from this vantage point.
Back at camp, I tell Ann and we jump in the UTV. Dinner can wait. As we drive downhill round a curve and, in a small meadow bathed in the last rays of sunlight, we see a giant, dark horse. Hernando I whisper.
Next to him, only inches apart are two very small horses. It is the yearling, Niobrara with her brother, two year-old Maelstrom.
Phoenix and War Bonnet are some distance away, bathed in the last rays of sunlight. The mares are clearly miffed and want nothing to do with these small interlopers. As it begins to get dark, we continue to watch Hernando and the Firestorm youngsters as they begin to graze together. A few days later when we see them atop the mountain they are all together. I wonder if Phoenix knows she has become the lead mare for her great grandchildren?
These peaceful sunset moments turn bittersweet, as my thoughts turn to Encore. Why couldn’t she have been rescued by Hernando? I doubt there is any stallion on the Pryor Mountains who will dare challenge the giant dark horse with the kind heart. She would have been safe with Hernando.
Ann and I travel all the way to the mountaintop on two of our five days in the Pryors. Though big drifts cover the understory of the limber pine forest, the snow has melted on most of the road. Breaking into the scenic, open meadows atop the mountain is always a thrill. The lovely Teacup Bowl is ringed with snow and bands graze in the lovely meadow below.
Near Penn’s Cabin, on our second trip into the high country, half a dozen families graze, including both Flint and Bolder’s bands.
For those of you who have not followed Cloud’s story, Flint is Shaman and Sitka’s grullo roan son, and Bolder is Cloud and Pococeno’s son. Both colts were raised by their stepfathers. Shaman raised Bolder, and Cloud raised Flint. When Flint and Bolder grew up they both challenged their stepfathers for their mares. Flint was not successful in challenging Cloud, but Bolder won all of Shaman's mares. This unusual story is at the heart of the third Cloud film and book, Cloud: Challenge of the Stallions.
We watch as Flint wins back his beautiful black mare, Isadora, from Morning Star. He charges the older stallion hitting him in the chest as they rear, nearly toppling Morning Star over. This fighting technique was one his blood father, Shaman, used so effectively throughout his long, illustrious band stallion career. Maybe it’s something in the genes?
Morning Star’s mare, Hitali, has a solid dun foal we first spotted a month before while glassing onto Sykes looking for Cloud. Without knowing the sex of the baby, we suggested the name Oracle in honor of its grandfather, Shaman.
Can you see the little spider webbing (dark lines ) on his forehead? I have only seen these primitive markings once before on a Pryor foal who regrettably only lived a few short months.
Oracle was born in the wonderful solitude of Sykes and has not been exposed to people.
Even from 100 yards away, he eyes us suspiciously. We keep our distance, not wanting him to get a bad impression of us two-leggeds. Good luck Oracle, I whisper.
Nearby, Bolder is in a bit of a quandary. He is having a problem with Echo, his four year old son who still nurses his mother, but is taking liberties with his grulla mare, Cedar (Sapo). Although we see Bolder charge Echo several times, he seems reluctant to kick him out of the band. Doesn’t Bolder remember what he himself did to Shaman? Then there is the issue of who will be the lead mare in Bolder's band.
The Black has rejoined Bolder’s band, perhaps to be near her mother, Velvet. She is the biggest mare on the Pryors and is taller than most of the stallions, including Bolder. The Black would like to become Bolder’s lead mare and gets into a lively kicking match with Cascade (Celt), Echo’s mother, who has led the band for the past four years. It will be interesting to see how these situations resolve themselves.
We slide down the mountain in the driving rain and wind. I hope the storm will fill the water catchments, allowing at least some of the bands to take advantage of the abundant forage in the mid regions of the range. This will give the grasses on top time to grow more before summer.
In the shelter of trees we spot Encore and Knight, and, unfortunately, Inali and London nearby. We stop to watch them before we leave. Dear Encore. Don't lose heart little girl.
I will be returning soon to catch up on what is happening in the lives of Cloud and Encore and all the wonderful wild horses of the spectacular, spiritually powerful Pryor Mountains. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.
Happy Trails! Ginger
P.S. Thank you for all your support, not only of Cloud’s Pryor Mountain Herd, but for all our wild horse families living in precious freedom. We could not carry on without you!