The winters of 1896 and 1897 were harsh and bitter monsters in Northern Idaho. At the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains, a large band of Nez Perce Indians had settled, and hundreds of teepees and lodges could be seen from a great distance. For many miles in all directions an abundance of wildlife roamed the land and fed the Nez Perce, along with the many settlers in close by towns and communities which continued to expand.
The unforgiving winter of 96 killed off thousands of elk, caribou, moose and deer. They either froze, starved, or feeling the effects of both, became easy meals for the wolves, who kept their population intact as wolves usually do.
But the following spring, there were few female animals of any species to procreate and enforce their numbers. So, the following winter of 97, with temperatures often at 20 degrees below zero there were also continual snowstorms dumping several feet of the deadly, white powder over the land. This put all creatures, animal and human, in peril of starvation.
In the early part of the winter of 97, the Nez Perce revived a practice that they were known for in the earlier part of the century. They would sneak into white settlements, under the cover of the darkness and steal their horses. These horses were rushed back to their village, quickly butchered, and fed to the starving tribe.
The communities got wise after a few weeks and posted sentries in their corrals and stables. They had to find another way to feed their people. There were several wise chiefs in this large band, and they gathered one afternoon to work on a solution. After many hours of discussion, they could find only one possible option. The large population of wild appaloosa horses, hidden throughout the canyons in the Bitterroot Mountain range, must be hunted and harvested.
Of the nine tribal chiefs only one, the youngest named, Chief Smohalla, fought the decision vehemently. The appaloosas were sacred to the Nez Perce and part of their tradition. It was said the Nez Perce were the first to discover this beautiful, speckled species in the 1700's. They captured them, tamed them, and trained them to do many things other horses couldn't do. They possessed greater intelligence and much more power, speed and stamina than other breeds. 'And now it had come to this,' Chief Smohalla thought.
"Listen to me great chiefs. I know I am the youngest among you. I have the least experience in life and have not seen the great challenges that you have. But my fathers and uncles taught me our traditions and sacred teachings about the land and its animals. I learned well from them . . . I remember them . . . I practice them . . . and I will not abandon them." He spoke with a powerful fury that alerted the other chiefs that he had a wisdom of his own.
Chief Smohalla had a special relationship with the appaloosas. He caught them in the wild and he had a unique way to break the animal for riding. It didn't involve any of the common ways like hobbling the legs or using the whip or frightening them in any way. There was something hypnotic or some said, magical, in his voice. It soothed the wild beast and within a matter of hours the animal welcomed a rider and could be trained to do anything the chief asked.
Many of the chiefs in front of him now had brought their, unrideable, appaloosas to him for his special training and had come away amazed. No one knew how he did it, but there was no doubting the fact that the ponies were sacred to him, and he was sacred to the ponies.
"We have heard your words and we have seen you act proudly in the traditional ways of our people." The oldest chief stated, "But, if we do not sacrifice the appaloosas, something horrible will happen to our people." The other chiefs nodded in agreement in a show of support.
Chief Smohalla sighed deeply and thoughtfully. "You are wrong great chief. You are all wrong. Your experience and high positions have jaded you to what is right for the Nez Perce. If you DO sacrifice our sacred appaloosas, something very, very horrible will happen to us! I will not be a part of it. As for my tribe, I will tell them your mission and they may stay and participate if they wish. But me and my family, we are leaving in the morning."
Though they tried to speak with him, he had no ears to hear them anymore. He jumped on his beautiful appaloosa mare, Kimmela, and galloped away. And true to his word, the next morning he left with only a dozen family members and the Nez Perce never saw him again.
At about four-thousand-feet elevation, there was a large meadow where the sun was brightly shining. The snow had melted down to only a couple inches and a stunning appaloosa stallion was pawing at the snow, uncovering a few rare, tasty clumps of grass. He looked up from his snack to survey over one-hundred wild appaloosa ponies, all digging for grass as well. This powerful horse with the golden glint of the sun in his eyes was their leader, the head stallion and the most magnificent of them all.
He was on high alert and his ears twitched to attention at every slight sound. Two months ago, their numbers were three times higher than now. But the Nez Perce had seen to their destruction. More recently, hunting groups from the townsfolk of Hamilton, Stevensville and Salmon, who were now starving as well, had raided and slaughtered much of their population. This intelligent stallion had found this hidden valley a few days ago and so far, all was peaceful. But it was always tranquil in the mountains, until it was not.
The stallion's hindquarters were mostly brown up to his muscular chest where white was the canvas and brilliant brown patches were painted. His proud head was raised high, displaying the brown mask that covered his eyes like a bandit. As the shadows of the mountain tops grew long in this hidden valley, he rounded up his herd into a tight bunch. They were more protected from wolves when the herd was tight, and the stallion constantly circled them in a protective patrol.
Just as the sun threatened to disappear behind the western ridge, the earth shook beneath the ponies. They all whinnied and cried out as the scene that had repeated itself all winter was once again upon them. The Nez Perce had found them and two-hundred hunters' road hard through the gorge into the meadow with their loud, trademark, battle cry.
The stallion bit the hindquarters of several mares to wake them from their stunned fear and gallop away. As the herd thundered off with the stallion in the lead, the ground quaked in front of them as well. A giant cloud of dust blinded them as almost five hundred of the townsfolk from Hamilton and Stevensville were charging straight at them.
The towns were starving, and people were dying daily. They voted to eliminate the competition for the horsemeat and had been hiding up the mountainside all day, waiting for the Indians to attack the horses.
The bloody scene was one the town folk would never forget. An evil black mark on their history forever. They tried to console themselves with the idea they were taking revenge on the Nez Perce for stealing their horses months ago. But in reality, it was two factions of humans who had lived together peacefully for years, until they didn't. Starvation drives creatures insane and strips them of their morals.
The gruesome outcome was as one would think, knowing that the Native Americans were so outnumbered. Appaloosa blood mixed and melted with the Nez Perce blood, which flowed into the town folks' blood, where it all congealed together and pooled into a sinful, red lake of fire over an acre in size. The setting sun cast an eerie orange glow to the bloody lagoon and reminded one of the boys from Hamilton of what hell must look like.
Of the appaloosas, only one remained now. The whites and the Nez Pearce had destroyed the once vast population of the sacred creatures. The speed and power of the stallion allowed his escape back out the gorge and he scrambled up and towards the other side of the mountain.
Several weeks later, with springtime supplying all the fresh pasture grass and tender bush leaves needed, the stallion had made it to the other side of the mountain. He meandered down an elk trail with the warm sun making him feel happy and a bit lazy. The sparking glint in his eyes had returned and he felt as powerful as ever. His only sad thought was the harem of mares that had died in the carnage. He was happy and almost content, but lonely.
As he continued down the trail towards the bottom of the mountain, he scanned the horizon. The land flattened out to a huge, green pasture. He saw something in the distance. It was a cabin with smoke rising from the roof. Having a well-earned distrust of humans, he almost turned the other direction. Then his nostrils flickered . . . 'That smells familiar.' He thought.
He trotted cautiously toward the cabin. He felt confident he could outrun any human on horseback that came after him, so he picked up the pace. As he got closer he noticed a small barn and a coral next to the cabin. Now the scent was strong, burning into his nose and he galloped toward the coral. His nose was leading him and he had no choice but to follow. He galloped up in a cloud of dust and stopped just short of the fence. He whinnied into the air and after a few seconds, he was answered with a like response.
He pawed the ground in anticipation and just then from out of the barn came an appaloosa mare. She raced to the high wooden fence and stuck her heard between the crossbars. The two ponies sniffed and licked and whinnied loudly to each other, both obviously happy to have made a new friend.
The noisy creek of the cabin door opening interrupted the introduction. Chief Smohalla stepped off the porch wearing a big smile and shaking his head curiously. Though he was in shock to find a wild appaloosa stallion standing outside his coral, he walked slowly and cautiously toward the pair.
A passing wagon train had told him that all the appaloosas and all the Nez Perce men had been wiped out. And yet, here is the most striking appaloosa stallion he had ever seen, standing boldly right in front of him.
"Easy there Kimmela." He softly spoke to his mare. "Let's not scare this beautiful beast away."
Kimmela trotted over to the chief and led him slowly to the stallion, as if wanting to make the introduction herself. The human fearing appaloosa took several steps backwards, away from the tall coral fence.
"Easy big boy . . . easy . . . I am not your enemy." The chief's voice still had the magic. The stallion stepped closer. "You are the last of the sacred appaloosas. You have nothing to fear here." He stepped even closer to the fence as did Kimmela and the chief.
"You will always be safe here; no harm will ever come to you. And you and Kimmela can have many fine colts together. Because you, the last appaloosa, have been sent here by the spirits to repopulate the sacred appaloosa line that man tried to destroy."
Chief Smohalla offered his hand to the stallion, the last appaloosa, and he laid his large head in the chief's hand in offering. He nuzzled his way up the arm and laid his head on the chief's shoulder, gazing with his eyes that held the glint of the sun, into his new friends' eyes.
A deal had been struck and slowly Chief Smohalla walked over to the gate to the left to open it for the stallion. "We welcome you sacred pony, the last appaloosa."
As the gate slowly swung open the horse backed up quickly some fifteen feet, as if maybe he changed his mind and was about to bolt off into the wild again. Kimmela whinnied to him and the stallion whinnied back. Like a bolt of lightning, he ran to the fence and on his powerful haunches rocketed over the six-foot high fence with ease. As he landed Kimmela ran to him and they nuzzled each other and rubbed their necks together.
An excited Chief Smohalla ran to greet the happy couple. 'What an incredible miracle this is.' He thought. He rubbed the neck of his mare lovingly and the stallion allowed him to do the same to him. Then he reared up on his hind, two feet and snorted at his new girlfriend. As if she was given a direct command, she bolted for the still open gate like a runaway freight train with the stallion close behind.
The chief stood dumbfounded as he painfully watched them race out of the corral and across the prairie for the Bitterroot Mountains far in the distance. Soon a small cloud of dust was all that could be seen of the last two appaloosas. A birth of a smile broadened as the chief nodded. "Yes . . . it is better this way. This is how the sacred appaloosa will live on . . . it is how they MUST live on.