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Authors: R. W. Stone

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BOOK: Trail Hand
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Whether it’s smart as a whip or dumb as an ox, the horse is the one animal a cowboy will give his life for and it’s the same with
vaqueros
down south. Funny thing, I’ve known some of the toughest and meanest men to cry for a whole week after having to shoot their injured cayuse, while on the other hand some nice quiet types can put a horse down and get another as easily as changing a pair of pants. It’s hard to figure.

Without a horse some parts of this country are certain death. Guess that’s why, when you stop to think about it, horse thieving is a hanging offense, whereas bank robbing or cattle rustling just gets jail time, if that.

I remember hearing of one outlaw who’d almost made a clean getaway when his horse broke a leg. Since his shot had given him away, some of the men in the posse about to hang him wondered why he’d bothered to stop and shoot the horse.

“You must have known the sound of that gunshot would tip us off,” they’d said. “You would have gotten clean away otherwise. That shot meant sure death, so why’d you do it?”

“Wasn’t any other way to play it. Couldn’t just leave him like that,” was all he’d answered, but it was explanation enough.

No drive gets started until the working ponies are checked over and any problems attended to, and ours was no exception. After all, you can’t herd animals from a wagon top; our ponies worked as hard as we did.

So for the next three weeks we continued our daily routine.
Don
Enrique left most decisions up to Chavez, who unfortunately hadn’t yet changed his attitude toward me. He did allow me a free rein to ride where I wanted, but, since he often criticized my recommendations, I tended to report directly to
Don
Enrique whenever I could.

Early every morning I rode ahead to scout the terrain, not returning till about midday. I usually repeated the process in late afternoon, returning for dinner just after dusk. At dark, after bedding my horse down and having dinner, I’d walk the camp perimeter and check the sentries, enjoying the evening quiet and the cool night air.

Night on the trail can be a combination of pure pleasure and nervous tension. The sky might be clear and full of stars, but when trouble comes, it will usually start between dusk and dawn.

Some folks believe Indians won’t attack at night, but that applies only to certain tribes, and even those that don’t fight in the dark have nothing against scouting around, making plans, or picking off an isolated straggler. The same holds true of outlaws, most of whom prefer to hit and run.

The Hernandez night riders always circled the herd either talking quietly among themselves or singing, partly to calm the animals, but mostly to let their presence be known. It’s good to remember not to ride up on someone unannounced on a drive, since to do so often risks a bullet through the chest.

Sometimes in the evening I’d wander a couple hundred yards out to relax under a rock ledge or cottonwood overlooking part of the camp. I tried to imagine someone stalking it from various angles,
and then I’d check out any place I thought might bring trouble. It’s a wise man who learns to relax whenever possible, but on the trail a scout soon learns to do so with one eye open. It’s smart because, aside from Indians and rustlers, there’s also wildlife to worry about, like cougars and prairie wolves.

You can’t take the elements for granted, either. Even the driest areas can suddenly be hit by storms with lightning so bad it’ll spook a herd or send a flash flood roaring down a newly formed gorge, taking rider and cayuse along with it. I’ve seen some of the flattest driest spots in the Southwest suddenly turn into a solid sea of mud during such squalls.

Unfortunately that’s precisely what happened shortly after we turned west. It was mid-afternoon on a fairly level and open plain. I was scouting ahead. Armando was riding drag with Ricardo, and the rest of the men were scattered around, working the horses from their usual places.

Contrary to what some folks might believe, most herds, be they horses or cattle, are best driven at only a modest pace. The more experienced
vaqueros
usually ride point, keeping the herd on its course or veering the animals during directional changes. Swing riders work just behind them, but slightly off to the sides, and they are followed, farther on back, by flankers who try to stop the animals from straying and retrieve those that succeed. Following just behind them are drag riders, who constantly push the herd as well as dealing with any slow or injured animals.

Joaquin Gutierrez and Chango Lopez usually rode well behind the drag riders until mealtimes, at which point they drove up past the herd to set up for chow. Out of habit Joaquin would bed down every night up ahead of us, with the chuck wagon’s tongue pointed forward in the direction of the next day’s journey.

In that part of the country the average rainfall is only about five inches at most, so the arid, lime-heavy soil supports only sparse shortgrass. We all figured it was still too early in the season to expect much rain, but there was an unusually strong breeze blowing that day, and the bay was acting strangely.

At the time I was riding about a mile out when Francisco approached me at a gallop.


El caporal me mando. Está preocupado
,” he said, indicating Chavez’s growing concern over the change in the weather. “Look at that sky.”

He really didn’t have to warn me, though. I’d already noticed the thickening cloud cover, surprised at how suddenly everything had darkened. Within a period of only a few minutes a bright and shiny day turned an ominous gray. A freak storm was brewing, and, from the look of things, it promised to be one nasty torrent.

We turned our horses around and started cantering back to the herd when the first lightning bolt hit. Almost simultaneously the sky opened up like a busted bucket, with rain pouring down in gallons.

“Circle the herd!” I yelled, temporarily forgetting my Spanish.


¡funtalos muchachos!
” shouted Francisco almost
simultaneously. We spurred our horses to a gallop, closing quickly with the herd, which was now headed straight toward us at a dead run.

With thunder as loud as cannon blasts spooking the herd, our whips and pistol fire didn’t have much affect, so we angled toward the lead stallions, trying physically to turn them with our own mounts. Almost immediately Francisco and I were joined by Chavez and several other
vaqueros
.

The ground around us was rapidly becoming a quagmire and it was increasingly harder for our ponies to maintain their footing. Suddenly Francisco’s horse slipped and stumbled, almost going down directly in front of the oncoming herd. My heart skipped a beat, dreading the inevitable, when Chavez flashed by me at a gallop.

The
caporal
practically came right out of his saddle, leaned sideways, down, and over, and grabbed Francisco’s bridle with his right hand. Chavez spurred his own mount on ahead, while at the same time jerking up on Francisco’s bridle in an effort to help keep the horse’s head up, thus allowing it to regain its balance. It was a move that could easily have cost Chavez his own life as well. Thankfully he pulled it off, and, as Francisco regained control, we all breathed a grateful sigh.


¡Bravo, caporal! ¡Bien hecho! ¡Andale
, Francisco!” The men’s shouts grew as the stallions out in front began to circle, and with them the rest of the herd.

I shook my head at Francisco who merely looked back at me in relief and shrugged.

We were all soaked to the bone. The downpour and subsequent stampede happened so quickly most of us didn’t even have time to put on our
ponchos. Water poured off our hats in streams. But at least the herd had turned and the horses were starting to calm down.

I looked over at Chavez as if to say that it had been much too close a call. We were tired, and sweating heavily in spite of the cold rain but, at the same time, were pleased at not having lost any of the horses.

   

Don
Enrique rode toward us, his big gray gelding sliding in the mud as he reined in. “Good work, boys.”

Chavez nodded to his boss, and then suddenly looked back in response to hearing someone call his name.

About fifty yards away, one of the
vaqueros
was shouting at us through the rain.
Don
Enrique finally spotted him and pointed back at young Jorge Morales, one of the boys who had been riding flank prior to the storm.

Jorge was small with rather girlish features, but he was a doer and a tryer, often compensating for his age and size by working harder than need be. Armando was engaged to Jorge’s older sister, Eva, and the two
vaqueros
had grown very close of late. All of the men liked his jovial nature, and gladly shared their individual skills with him whenever time allowed.

Jorge was now sitting a ten-year-old piebald paint that he favored. The pony was very much suited to him, being short-coupled, spirited, and sure-footedly quick in a turn.

Chavez waved back at Jorge, motioning for him to ride on over to us.


¡Que aguacero! ¿Verdad, muchachos?

“What a drenching!” Jorge yelled back. He was wearing an old rifle slung across his back, and was reaching for a slicker I’d previously lent him. Shifting the rifle off his shoulder, he held it up in his left hand while at the same time turning around in his saddle to untie the slicker slung across the back of his saddle.

There was another
crash
of thunder when, for some reason, I suddenly had another one of those bad premonitions. While patting the Morgan’s neck to calm him down, I glanced around anxiously. All at once lightning struck so close the bay jumped a foot sideways in fright. I quickly looked over to my right and, to my horror, saw Jorge Morales frozen in a strange bluish light.

Apparently his musket was acting like a lightning rod, or maybe it was the metal conchos he’d tacked all over his saddle. Whatever the reason, that lightning bolt hit him square on.

Instinctively Chavez threw an arm up to his face to shield himself from the flash, as
Don
Enrique exclaimed: “
¡Madre de Dios!
” All of us reacted out of shock and surprise.

Jorge sat there shaking like a rag doll, his arms flung up over his head, outstretched, the rifle still pointing upward in his left hand. His pony actually seemed to rise up onto the points of its hoofs, the hair on its mane and tail standing straight up. Several of the
vaqueros
around me gasped as the boy and his cayuse stopped shaking, and toppled over. They both landed flat on their sides, almost as one, like a statue being pushed over.

I spurred the bay and, together with Armando,
Rogelio, and Chavez, rushed to Jorge’s aid. We jumped to the ground and ran only a step or two before stopping cold in our tracks. There was no use even checking him, since up close it was obvious Jorge was already dead. There were long black stripes of burnt flesh running down his neck and all across his back. His clothes were still smoking.

The pinto had similar stripes burned the length of its body, and everything smelled of singed hair. Rogelio pointed to a large hole under the horse’s belly from which its guts poured out.

We stood for a while in silence, staring at Jorge’s body, as the rain poured down on us. In spite of the continued flashes of lightning and accompanying thunderclaps, it seemed as though everything had suddenly grown very quiet, and everyone remained very still. I bent down slowly and, with Armando’s help, pulled Jorge off his horse, and rolled him over on his back. Armando crossed himself and his tears combined with the raindrops running down his face.

Jorge’s mouth was locked in an eerie expression of complete surprise. What bothered me most, however, was the strange look in his eyes. They were both still open, staring straight up at us as if searching for the answer to a question for which there was none. At least none that I knew of.

I felt a hand on my shoulder as the
caporal
stepped in between us and bent over. He ran his hand across the boy’s eyes, closing them gently. The rain stopped almost simultaneously.

“We’ll bury him here,”
Don
Enrique said quietly.

Armando and I looked up at the rest of the men whose horses now surrounded us.

“Remove whatever he has of value to send his family,” Chavez added.


Yo me encargo de eso
,” Armando offered, drying his tears.

Several of the men dismounted after Joaquin brought back some shovels from his wagon. The rest turned their mounts around and returned to the herd.

A half hour later
Señor
Hernandez led a small ceremony for Jorge Morales. The men stood silently in a half circle around the grave, their sombreros in hand as the words were read. The manner in which the Morales boy died had touched each one of us, partly because of the sudden violence, but also because of its utterly random nature. While dying in a stampede or during a gunfight might be considered hazards of the line of work we’d chosen to pursue, Jorge’s completely random death was a reminder that no man truly has control over his own life, only what he does with it.

   

Don
Enrique’s words were a comfort for those who believed there is a greater purpose to death than man could ever comprehend. As far as I was concerned, though, it was enough just to be grateful that he had died quickly and without much suffering. Jorge’s family would have proud memories of a boy who grew quickly to manhood, and who died while doing his job well. That’s as much as anyone can hope for.

As soon as the
don
finished, Chavez ordered everyone back into the saddle and moving. As always there was work to be done but it was good
therapy, and over the next few days we made good time. True to form Chavez drove the herd as well as the men hard, leaving little time for sorrowful contemplation or remorse.

Unfortunately, over the next few weeks, the working relationship between Chavez and myself failed to improve. I had yet to gain his trust and that was making my job increasingly difficult, especially since having come to an impasse over how best to proceed with the herd. It was my job as scout to find the safest route, but as usual I had a hard time convincing the
caporal
to listen to reason.

Chavez impressed me as a hard worker and his physical courage was beyond question, but, try as I might, I just couldn’t say yes without his no, or offer a “hi” without his “bye.”

Most of the men eventually accepted me well enough, and I’d become downright friendly with Miguel and Francisco, but it seemed that no amount of “yes, sirs” or “no, sirs” was ever going to change the
caporal
’s attitude toward me. Things finally came to a head one hot afternoon while trying to explain our differences to
Señor
Hernandez.

Chavez,
Don
Enrique, and I were sitting horseback about a mile and a half in front of the herd.

   

Don
Enrique looked straight ahead while he spoke. “My
caporal
does not agree with you,
joven
.”

“Well that doesn’t surprise me,” I said, glancing at Chavez. “It won’t be the first time.”

The
caporal
shifted in his saddle, his increasing anger obvious.

“We should continue as planned,” he said to his
jefe
.

“Sorry to disagree,
Señor
Hernandez, but going straight on ahead wouldn’t be very smart,” I argued.

“And why not? The map suggests otherwise,” he asked.

“Maps don’t always tell you the whole story. Look, I know this area. While it’s true that both the military and the stage line use this trail, so does the Brazelton gang, and about a half dozen other outlaws. Not to mention the White Mountain Apaches. You might have heard that the Indians have been quiet lately, and in actual fact they probably respect the truce a hell of a lot better than we do, but still you never know. I’m paid to worry about such things and I think there still might be a few hotheads who’d just love to raid a herd like this. But more importantly, if we follow this route relying solely on that map, you’ll find the next five days to be mighty thirsty ones. Up ahead it’s almost totally devoid of good water. Trust me, it’s a bad stretch.”

“But, as you say, the stagecoach and the Army feel it is the best way.”
Señor
Hernandez was a cautious man.

“I don’t trust him,
jefe
,” Chavez chipped in his usual estimation of my worth.

I tried hard to ignore him. “The Army travels a hell of a lot better armed than we do. And remember, the stagecoach line doesn’t have to water
twelve hundred thirsty horses. A six-up stage moves a whole lot faster than our herd will and you know it.”

“So what do you suggest?”
Don
Enrique asked.

“That we turn north for the next few days.”


¿Norte? Esta loco el gringo
,” muttered Chavez. “And lose more time?” he added, glaring at me.

“Maybe we’ll lose a few days, but we’ll save a lot of horses. See, I know a small cañon north of here that’s not on the map. It’s blocked from view by some bluffs and the entrance is probably covered with overgrown brush by now. But there’s plenty of water fed from an underground stream, or well, of some kind. I found it by accident a while back and even in midsummer there was more than enough water to go around. Fact is, if I’d gone straight ahead, it’s not likely I’d be here talkin’ to you. I’d be dead of thirst. Look, I figure we can cut back southwest from there. So don’t worry. More likely than not we’ll make up whatever time we lose having to detour north from here.”

“I don’t like it,” Chavez said, wiping his hand slowly across his brow. It was evident his anger had lessened and that he was rethinking the situation. At any rate the final decision rested with
Don
Enrique.

“We will do as our scout recommends,” he said after some consideration. Turning to Chavez, he added: “One should not ask for an opinion unless he is ready to follow it. We will camp here for now and then drive the remuda to this cañon.”


Sí, señor
, as you wish.”

Turning back to me,
Don
Enrique continued on. “I want you to ride out and survey the area. I do not want to send my men blindly into danger.”

“You won’t be sorry,” I replied.

“We better not be,” the
caporal
added, remaining true to form.

Later, Francisco, Miguel, and I rode out in search of the cañon I’d described to
Don
Enrique.

A few years earlier I’d been forced by circumstances to change directions or face the consequences. At the time the circumstances and the consequences just happened to be one and the same, namely a band of angry Apaches itching for a big white man to torture. I’d found myself stranded among them with an empty canteen and no way back to the last water hole. Even so I still counted myself lucky. Apaches don’t usually give any warnings. Fact is, most of the time you don’t even know they’re around until an arrow flies by your head.

I’d spotted them at night entirely by accident, almost stumbling right into the Apache
ranchería
while trying to find a place to bed down. To this day I don’t know why they didn’t catch me. Maybe it’s true what they say about how God protects the dumb and innocent.

At any rate, I knew those Apaches would pick up my trail come morning, so before they caught onto me, I hightailed it out of there as fast as I could, changing directions so often that even my horse was confused. And that’s when I came upon the entrance to the valley. Well, actually the Morgan stallion spotted it first. He was as thirsty as I was and must have picked up on the smell of water.

At first it was hard to make out the entrance, but since the bay was tugging hard at the reins, I let him have his head and just sat back. I always
trusted that horse’s judgment more than that of most men I knew. As usual he didn’t let me down.

Once we made it through the thickets that overgrew the entrance, the valley opened up like the petals of a flower. Stretching out for at least four and a half miles was a thick field of grass and a creek that originated from a pool situated at the base of a large rock overhang. Water spilled over from the pool and ran downhill spreading throughout the valley.

I dived down into that pool as far as I could, but never did reach bottom. An underground waterspout continually pushed crystal clear water upward, nourishing the whole pasture. It was an untouched piece of paradise.

Today I was in the mood for a little fun, so, after mentally reassuring myself of the entrance route, I challenged the two
vaqueros
to a race.

“Miguel, Francisco…catch me if you can!”

We galloped along almost until the very last minute at which point the Morgan veered toward the entrance to the valley. With the two
vaqueros
following my lead, the three of us raced full speed at what happened to be a solid wall of thickets.

I could see Miguel’s look of confusion and the growing panic on Francisco’s face. They kept expecting me to stop, or at least swerve, but I just leaped ahead, letting the Morgan have his head. When we finally reached the thickets, the two hauled back on their reins so hard Miguel’s horse dug a trough in the ground, and Francisco was thrown clear off his saddle.

The Morgan and I raced through a patch we knew to be safe, jumping a trunk on the ground
and running through the shrubs covering the entrance to the valley. When I called out to them, Miguel and Francisco must have thought they were hearing a voice from the great beyond. When they finally realized they weren’t really hearing a ghost, after all, they let fly a stream of commentaries that I wouldn’t care to hear repeated at a Sunday goin’ to meetin’.

After we had a short look-see around the valley, it took us about two hours to clear the entrance of trees and branches, enough to make room for the wagons and the rest of the herd. Francisco and I hobbled our horses while Miguel tied a rope to his saddle horn, using it to help pull several trunks and other large rocks out of the way.

Back home children learn not to stick their hands anywhere without looking first, but after a couple of hours of backbreaking labor I got a little careless. While trying to get a better purchase on a branch that just wouldn’t budge, I reached down under it without checking first. When Miguel’s horse pulled back, the rope snapped and I tumbled backward with the branch landing smack on top of me.

I was completely pinned down when, to my horror, I discovered that I had been clearing the branches around an active rattlesnake pit. Two six footers were coiling, one close to my arm and the other near the calf muscle which had become exposed during the fall when my pant leg snagged.

Trapped under that branch I had no way to reach my gun. The boot was pulled halfway off and my leg was within inches of the serpent. I screamed for help, kicking sand as the snake rattled, preparing to strike. Try as I might, I couldn’t
free my arm. In fact that whole side of my body was caught tightly. Unable to move, my eyes were frozen on a pair of hideously curved fangs. I felt something fly by my face and a shot rang out.

Almost simultaneously the first rattler was cut in half by the machete Francisco had thrown, while the other snake exploded from the impact of Miguel’s bullet. Thankfully Francisco had been right about Miguel; his draw was both fast, and accurate.

After they had me free of the tree and had dusted me off, I pulled the blade free and offered it back gratefully.

“You know, boys,” I said, handing over the machete, “after reconsidering things, I just may get me one of these. You’re right, they are kinda useful for working around snakes.
Gracias, hombres
.”

“It was nothing.”

“Don’t mention it,
amigo
.”

I didn’t, but, as far as I was concerned from that point on, those two could call in their markers anytime and I’d see to it they were cashed.

Reassured that I was all right, Francisco rode back to the others to act as guide while Miguel and I made preparations to stake out the camp. The valley was just as I’d remembered it, well sheltered and with plenty of running water.

That evening was one of the most pleasant I can remember. The water was cool, the food good, and the weather even better. I remember how splendid the sun looked as it set that day, glowing soft orange as if the fire had gone from it. The moon was full, and shone brightly as wisps of clouds floated by. Even Chavez was in a good
mood, although he’d never admit out loud that I’d been right.

After dinner several of the
vaqueros
went over to Joaquin’s chuck wagon and retrieved the musical instruments they’d stashed there. In every group of
mejicanos
I’d ever known, there was always someone who played the guitar, and this bunch was no exception. In fact, most all of the men could pick a little, and soon music filled the night air, sometimes quiet and peaceful, sometimes loud and lively.

Armando grabbed Chango’s arm and the two of them began prancing around. I tossed my sombrero in the ring and everyone started laughing as several others joined my half-baked hat dance.

A short while later, stretched out listening to the men sing an old
ranchero
tune, called “
El
Cantador
”, I complimented Ricardo on his fancy rope work.

“I saw the loop you threw over that grulla trying to get away from you this morning. Nice job. I was sure he was going to beat it,” I said in broken Spanish.

“Eduardo is really much better,” Miguel translated Ricardo’s words as he sat down alongside of us, holding a second plate of Joaquin’s special hot rice. “
Arroz a la mejicana
.”

They called their friend over to join us.


Oye
, Eduardo,
ven acá y trae tu reata
.”

Eduardo came over, adjusting the knot on what had to be the longest lariat I’d ever seen.


¡Andale
, Eduardo!” shouted Armando joining in the fun. “Show the
gringo
how it’s really done.”

I have to admit I was impressed. Over the next
ten minutes Eduardo made that rope dance a series of
pasos
that were a wonder to behold.

Later that night, while pouring myself another cup of coffee I noticed
Señor
Hernandez sitting off to one side, alone, with an empty cup in his hand. Rather than waiting for him to get up, I took the pot over and refilled his cup.

“Mind if I sit here with you a spell?” I said in Spanish, or so I thought.

“‘
Sentarme un rato
’ means sit a while,” the
don
replied. “But you just asked me if you could ‘
sentarme
con una rata
’ which translates as ‘may I sit with a rat?’ However,” he said with a grin, “the answer is yes, but only if we speak English. My ears are getting too old to suffer the agony of a beginner’s accent.”

I laughed in agreement, but, however bad my accent might sound, I was intent on improving it, as well as my vocabulary.

“I don’t stay a beginner long at most things I set my mind to,” I said proudly.


Muy bien
. I think you will find Castellano, our original Spanish, to be a rich and descriptive tongue. One that is, in fact, even more logical than your own language.”

“How’s that?” I asked defensively.

“For one thing, the English always put their descriptions before the object of conversation. In Spanish we say…‘
la casa blanca, cuadrada y
grande
,’…or ‘the house that is white, square, and large.’ However, in English, you start out, instead, by describing something that has not yet been identified…the big, square, white…”—he paused— “house. You see, it is backward.”

“Well, you might have a point. I never thought
about it like that,” I said, pondering the idea. “But then, on the other hand, I never had any problems understanding English, and I’ve been speaking it since I was a kid.” It was a lame joke at best.

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