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Authors: R. W. Stone

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The next morning the three of us rose early and, after a quick breakfast, rode on south. We made good time over the next few days, and, when we finally crested the hills overlooking the
hacienda
, I could see for myself why the Hernandez outfit was able to raise such fine stock.

Nestled deep in a small valley was a stretch of lush grass pasture spreading out in all directions, and a river that curved along the eastern and northern borders of the ranch. That type of situation is rare for a country that tends more toward mesquite, chaparral, and dry barren stretches.

   

Don
Enrique had settled the only fertile terrain in the surrounding area, and had managed it well. More importantly, though, in order to run a ranch this big, he had to have held it through the years against all comers. In those days a man called his own only what he was able to defend, and, as we rode in, I pondered the fact that
Don
Enrique had defended much. He would likely be a powerful man to contend with.

Once through the
hacienda
’s gate, my first impression was that things were being run efficiently. I noticed right off that the fences around
the remuda were in good shape, solid and well-built. There’s always work to be done on a ranch, and, judging from the condition of the grounds around the stable, it was obvious that none of the Hernandez
vaqueros
was allowed to loaf for very long.

When we tied up our horses in front of the nearest corral, I noticed an
amansador
breaking in some new horses. Up north they call wranglers who earn their pay saddle-breaking raw broncos “peelers”. Miguel claimed that down here the
vaqueros
who worked as
amansadores
passed down their knowledge about bronco busting from one generation to the next. Whether true or not, it was clear this
mejicano
knew his job as well as any peeler I’d ever seen.

Some believe in taming a mustang by repeatedly throwing it down with their rope until it’s dazed, and then riding it hard with spurs and quirts until it’s exhausted. It’s a quick but hard technique, one my pa never favored. Although this particular
amansador
sported the usual high, spiked Mexican rowels, and carried a short leather quirt, I was glad to see them rarely used, and then only to stop the bucking from getting out of hand.

The other
vaqueros
working with him were a well-coordinated team. I noticed one of them throwing what northern wranglers call a hoolihan loop—twirling the lariat onto the horse’s neck from the ground up. It usually works better than an overhead throw, which can often spook a horse.

A
hacienda
is like a small community and its owner is frequently viewed by the
rancheros
who live there as almost a father figure, be that good
or bad. Rather than troubling himself with the routine work involved in running a ranch, the
hacendado
usually delegates authority to a
caporal
who in turn is responsible for supervising the
rancheros
and
vaqueros
in their day-to-day chores.

This outfit was run by a
caporal
, named Chavez, who took his job very seriously. It was obvious, right off, that he wasn’t half as personable as the other
vaqueros
I’d met so far. In fact, he didn’t even bother to dismount when I was introduced. At first I took no offense, figuring that was just in keeping with his position. Although most
vaqueros
love to ride, a
caporal
practically lives in the saddle. After a while, riding, instead of walking, becomes a matter of pride.

Chavez sat astride a large sorrel gelding and stared down at me. He looked me over like someone being sold a lame mule, and not particularly happy about it to boot. He was not a very tall man, was dark-complected, and sported an oversize moustache. His left hand carried a long bullwhip, and the obvious size of his forearms suggested that he would be very proficient with it.

He also wore a utility knife sheathed in a garter strap tied halfway up his leather leggings. Almost all the men did, but I suspected the difference would be in his ability to use it for things other than cutting rope. Chavez had a large scar running straight down the left side of his face, which he tried to conceal by wearing a wide flat sombrero with the brim cocked down at a slant.

Before we arrived, Miguel had mentioned that his
caporal
got that scar preventing a robbery attempt in town, taking a knife meant for
Don
Enrique. The man obviously rode for the brand in
the Western sense, which was something I could appreciate, so I stood quietly next to Miguel as Francisco introduced me.

After looking me over, Chavez turned to Francisco and rattled off something in Spanish a little too fast for me to catch. Most of the nearby hands began to chuckle.

“He says pretty men with fancy guns belong in carnivals, not on working ranches,” Francisco explained.

It was fairly obvious that his taunting me was some sort of test, a way to size me up.

I’ll be the first to admit that my sandy-colored hair highlighted what some considered rather boyish features, even for my size. The fact that, before riding into the
hacienda
, I’d changed into my favorite shirt probably didn’t help much, either. I wore it for comfort and practicality, but it was an elaborately stitched mountain-style fringed buckskin, and may have looked out of place. Since some of the men were still laughing, I figured something needed to be said if a
yanqui
like me was ever to get any respect.

I knew it wasn’t smart to fly off at an outfit’s ramrod, but I could tolerate some things only up to a point. I stared straight back at Chavez.

“Miguel, tell the
caporal
he shouldn’t judge a man by how nice his face looks,” I said in a firm voice, an obvious reference to his scar.

Francisco stood quietly off to the side, looking at us in total disbelief.

Miguel looked even more uncomfortable at having been chosen to translate what I’d just said, but it was nothing compared to the look I got
from Chavez. I continued on anyway, trying to remain expressionless.

“Miguel, tell him I know most all the routes north and west from here by heart, and I know where you’re headed. At this time of the year, if he doesn’t know where exactly the water is, he’ll need someone like me along. One last thing…tell him that, if a brand treats its men fair enough, I’ll give it as much or more as the next man.”

The
caporal
seemed to chew on things a while before replying to me in broken English.

“We shall see,
gringo
, and soon I think.” Before he could say any more, however, a tall gray-haired man approached us from behind. By the way the men reacted I knew right away he had to be
Don
Enrique Hernandez de Allende. Certain men almost immediately command respect by their mere presence.
Señor
Hernandez was clearly one of them.

Some Americans are always riding the
mejicanos
hard, especially those new to the Southwest, but I always found it an attitude hard to understand. I never expected any more or any less from others than what I was willing to give first. Most of the
mejicanos
I’d met seemed decent folk and many of their
vaqueros
were actually a far sight better ropers than some cowboys I know. In fact, I’ve seen
vaqueros
use the eighty-to 100-foot lassos like they were an extension of their own arms.

I always figured deep down most of us were pretty much alike, but while it’s a cinch I don’t descend from nobility,
Don
Enrique sure must have. He stood almost eye to eye with me, even at my six foot three. His back was ramrod straight, and,
although he was in his sixties, I didn’t see one ounce of fat on his body. He wore a large gray sugarloaf sombrero, an embroidered jacket, and a red waist sash.

There were solid silver conchos running down the sides of his velveteen pants that were probably worth more than I would earn in a year. Somehow, though, they didn’t look flashy on him, but were rather more like something he’d earned. The
don’s
eyes were steel gray, and it was a sure bet they noticed everything that went on around him.

In spite of
Don
Enrique’s commanding presence, it was hard for me to pay much attention to anything other than the sight beside him. The woman standing off to his left was truly a vision. Dark black hair, green eyes, and a fair complexion would stir any man under the right circumstances, but this was different.

   

Señorita
Hernandez was about the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, real life and pictures included. Her eyes seemed to stare right through a man. She stood by her father’s side, wearing a black skirt and a
charra
-style blouse that highlighted a figure women would fight over, and men would gladly die for.

They say that cowboys pride their hats so much they dress from the top down and undress from the bottom up. Maybe so, but that afternoon my flat brim flew off into my hands with a sweep that would have made my ma proud.


Mucho gusto
,” I said, offering her my best smile.

Before she could reply,
Don
Enrique abruptly spoke out. “My daughter Rosa María and I both speak your language,
señor
.” He was polite, but still the tone was there, as if cautioning me about his daughter and reminding me I was still a stranger.

I caught his drift and simply nodded back at him.

He turned to listen to his
caporal
, who strategically placed himself between the two of us before replying. I caught enough to understand Chavez was explaining who I was and how I was looking for a riding job. What I couldn’t figure out was whether he was giving me the benefit of the doubt, or ending things before I even got half a chance.

Meanwhile, I was content just to exchange smiles with the
señorita
. I had time to reconsider the
caporal’s
joke about pretty men, but, right then and there, I was glad to have inherited my pa’s looks. I only hoped the
señorita
was, too.

“My men know every part of Méjico from here to Chiapas,
joven
, but few have traveled much in what is now your country.”

My concentration reluctantly shifted back as
Don
Enrique addressed me directly.

“Of late we have little reason to trust your countrymen, but Francisco and Miguel both speak well of you. We plan to leave here within the week, so, if you still wish to hire on, you may join the
vaqueros
in the bunkhouse.” He gestured to a long building off to the far right.

“Thank you, sir, I will,” I replied. “But since I wasn’t sure of the if or the when of the job, I’ll just stay the night. First thing in the morning I’ll head back to town. Left some things that’ll need tending
to first,” I explained. “Then, if it’s all right with you, I’ll join the drive when you cross over, just north past town.”


Muy bien
, as you wish,
joven
.”

Don
Enrique seemed satisfied, but I could tell Chavez was far from pleased. That was understandable. A ranch foreman likes to know more about the men he rides with than what I’d offered Chavez, but I hoped he’d cool off once we hit the trail and began working together. In the meantime, I tried my best to connect with Rosa without appearing overly attentive. Riding away without getting better acquainted with her would be hard for me, but there was little I could do other than hope to leave her with a good first impression.

After I put my horse up, one of the ranch hands, a short stocky lad named Rogelio, showed me to the bunkhouse. Buildings on the
hacienda
were constructed a little differently from those on northern ranches. Up north they tend toward sod roofs and dirt-floored houses, with walls made from logs chinked with clay. The cracks are usually patched with leftover newspaper and the shacks heated with iron stoves.

Down here things were much different. Both the bunk and chuck houses were long, one level, tile-roofed affairs. Their adobe walls were cemented with mud about four to five feet thick, which tends to keep things cooler in summer. There weren’t any indoor stoves here, either, since it was usually much too hot. Instead, the cooking was done in clay ovens, or
hornos
, kept just outside the buildings.

The
hacienda
supported a lot of women
sirvientas
, who were kept busy washing, sewing, and
tending to their young. Out in front of the bunkhouse sat an old
ranchero
who had to be ninety if he was a day. During the whole time I spent on the
hacienda
he just sat there on a cut-out keg, quietly watching the others and smoking the remnants of a cigarette whose ashes kept falling into his lap. From the size of that pile of ashes I’d say he smoked quite a few during the day.

I didn’t really expect any fancy lodgings, but the evening spent in the bunkhouse was surprisingly comfortable. Living in another territory can be unsettling enough, but on top of that I was starting work with strangers who all spoke a foreign tongue. If it weren’t for the
vaqueros’
sense of humor and Miguel’s help with the translating, I would have been completely lost.

Rogelio directed me to a slat cot in the far corner, and then shoved a wooden tack box next to it to store my kit. He then pointed out various aspects of the
hacienda
and introduced me to a few of the other hands. Miguel and Francisco still had to unload the supplies we’d brought, but, since I felt out of place just standing around, I decided to lend them a hand.

Unloading four pack mules and storing supplies wasn’t all that hard, but it did cause me to work up quite an appetite. When combined with a full afternoon’s work, the smell from those
hornos
helped remind me it was near dinnertime and, judging from the growling sounds emanating from Miguel’s stomach, it was plain I wasn’t the only hungry one.

As soon as the last box of nails and spools of wire were stored, we hurried back, anxious to get first crack at the chow. Even taking my hunger
into account, the chuck house meal was still real tasty, with lots of refried fríjoles, big soft tortillas, and cheese mixed in.

BOOK: Trail Hand
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