Authors: R. W. Stone
“Of course.” He smiled. “But even you will have to admit, it makes more sense to put the noun before the description. Makes the language more sensible and easier to learn.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, anxious to change the subject, “how did someone like you, someone so learned, choose to settle in these parts? Seems like you’d have been more comfortable in the city.”
“My family originates from Sevilla, in Spain. There it is the custom for the inheritance to go to the older son. My father was the best horseman in the region and was well educated in both breeding and ranch management. Unfortunately he was the second son. So you see my uncle inherited all the family lands. It seems that with our people one either works the land, joins the army, or becomes a priest, and my father was not the sort to spend his life in a church.”
“So he joined the army.”
. He was a captain with the mounted Lancers. Eventually he came to Méjico and married. As a boy I remember how he read with disgust the letters from home, and the discussions with my mother about how my uncle was ruining the land and mismanaging things. I vowed someday to create another
, one where my father could finish his days doing what he most loved, raising fine horses.
“I have been blessed with many things during
my life, not the least of which was Rosa’s mother. My beloved wife Gloria worked, struggled, and fought by my side, year after year, until we finally established a fine ranch, one my father could be proud of. One that would bring honor to our name. I even imported horses from Andalusia, the finest in the world.”
“I won’t argue that point with you,
“And then he joined you, your father? He helped you finish breeding this herd?” I asked.
“Unfortunately no. Papa died the very same month that the horses arrived. It was not a good time for us. My wife also died that year, soon after giving birth to Rosita.”
“I’m sorry. I know how much it hurts to lose one’s family.”
“Were it not for Rosa María, I might have given it all up, but having a daughter to care for gave me instead more determination. I wanted to leave her something important. Wealth and power are important,
, but they are not everything. I also wanted Rosa to have a sense of honor and pride, and a sense of obligation to others.”
“If you’ll allow me, sir, from what little I know of her, I think it’s safe to say you succeeded at that.”
Enrique smiled and nodded. “Rosa has worked the
alongside of me all her life, and I am proud to say the
respect her as much as they would any man.”
“Well, Chavez for one sure seems awfully protective of her,” I added, remembering the clout
he’d given me. “Mind if I ask you if there’s anything between the two of them? You know…romantically?”
¿El caporal y Rosa?
No. They are more like brother and sister. Chavez’s father worked for me as my first
, and the two children grew up together. I am not sure who fell off more horses or who had more black eyes as a child,” he said, laughing, “but I do remember they were constantly fighting, as most siblings will. When his father died, Chavez took his place as
. He is very protective of us both, especially of Rosa, I will admit, but he is engaged to another girl named Caridad Luz. I love him as I would a son and I owe him a great deal more than loyalty. I owe him my life.”
“I understand that he got that scar in a knife fight?”
Enrique sighed heavily and stared off into space. He hesitated so long I wasn’t sure if he was going to continue or not, but he finally took another sip of coffee and explained.
“Some time ago we were taking money to our bank when a band of thieves attacked us. Chavez’s father was shot down right in front of his son, and I in turn shot the outlaw.” As he spoke,
Enrique’s right arm brushed instinctively against his revolver. “But two others rushed me from behind and knocked the
from my hand. They had knives, and one of them would have surely killed me on the spot had not Chavez suddenly thrown his own knife into the man’s back. He then fought the other one barehanded.”
“And that’s when he got cut?”
. But even so he still fared better than the other. Chavez killed that
with his own knife. From what they tell me his fiancée, Caridad, has been very understanding and still loves him very much, but sadly Chavez has not been the same man since the wound.”
“A little too much on the serious side?” I suggested.
“It is understandable. I suppose one cannot blame him much for that. But he is a good man and an excellent
“I guess you’re right,” I said. “But he sure doesn’t give new folks much of a chance.”
“I forgot to mention”—
Hernandez paused— “the thieves at the bank…they were of your people,
That last one gave me something to think on.
The following morning, as usual, I made preparations to scout ahead. I wanted to peruse the next water hole and planned to get an early start. While saddling my horse, I paused to chat with Miguel, who had already started what had now become his morning routine—boots, hat, coffee, a long shave, and then more coffee.
“Which way you headed today?” he asked, splashing water on his face from a bucket perched on the chuck wagon tailboard.
“Want to check up ahead, then swing over to the northwest and have a look-see. Make sure everything’s OK.”
Miguel lathered his face using an old bone-handled shaving brush.
, you have got to be the shavingest
I ever met,” I joked. “And that goes for most cowboys, too,” I added.
He adjusted a small mirror that hung from a nail on the side of the chuck wagon. “
” he asked, feigning surprise.
“Do I mean it?” I replied. “You bet. Hell, most wranglers wouldn’t touch a razor on a trail drive, even if they were forced to at gun point. You been looking in that mirror, shavin’ and fussin’ with that moustache of yours every day since we left the border. Reckon you oughter have it right by now. Besides, ain’t no ladies out here to impress, you know.”
He adjusted the mirror to keep the glare out of his eyes before replying. “
, but how do you say it…the cleanliness is next to God.”
“Godliness,” I said, correcting him.
, godliness,” he responded, pointing in the direction of Inocente Vizcara, one of the other
in the outfit, who was just awakening. Admittedly Inocente’s unkempt beard did resemble a large bird’s nest.
“OK, I don’t shave, so you want I should to look like that?” Miguel asked jokingly. “No, not me, I don’t want no birdies landing on my face.” He laughed, shaking his razor over at Inocente to emphasize his point.
I swung into the saddle and took up the reins. “Well maybe you’re right after all, Miguel. How about saving me some of that soap for when I get back.”
“You going very far?” Inocente asked as I rode by.
“Three days or so, I reckon.”
,” Miguel said, waving good bye, his soap brush still full of lather.
“Thanks. You take care, too.” The last thing I remember seeing as I rode off was Inocente arguing with Miguel, and the morning sun reflecting brightly off his shaving mirror.
Following remote stretches of trail has always been what I enjoy most in life. There’s a quiet calm that always comes over a man after hours alone on horseback. The soft rhythmical creaking of the saddle combines with the occasional rattle of canteen or rifle swinging to or fro to create a peaceful melody.
Strangely, even though riding is physically taxing, I’ve always found it mentally relaxing. Maybe because there’re no arguments, no worrisome chatter, no rules to follow, or aggravation.
Even though on the trail it’s essential to remain alert to the possibility of danger, eventually it becomes second nature. After a spell on horseback the mind stops fretting and life’s focus becomes much clearer. There’s just a oneness of man, horse, and Nature.
I’m not sure that it has to do with any special quality the horse might have, though. For one thing, they don’t react like pets do. A good dog, for example, practically lives to please its master. You treat it well and you’ll have a dependable friend for life. On the other hand, some of the hardest working trail horses I’ve known would bite, stomp, or kick you silly the first chance they get.
A true horseman never stops adjusting to a
horse’s body or reacting to its mood. The trick is to relax, yet maintain control, and the rider who lets his guard down, more often than not, suddenly finds himself afoot. You can’t teach a horse dependability, either. A sorry cayuse will spook at every tumbleweed and step in every hole. I suppose that’s why it’s called horse sense—either a cayuse has it or doesn’t.
With a trail-wise horse, life can be downright pleasant. A good pony is sure-footed, agile, and alert. It will walk when it’s supposed to, stand if you want it to, and run like blazes when it has to. And that’s the way that Morgan bay of mine was. He was as sound as any horse I’ve ever had.
I’d ridden several hours without any signs of trouble, Indian, outlaw, or otherwise, and figured my current position to be about three days northwest of where the herd was camped. The Morgan could have gone on, but, since he was sweating heavily, I paused alongside the rim of a long gully that sloped off from my right, and down about forty feet.
The area was so hot, dry, and dusty it was a sure bet even the bay was daydreaming about the last creek we’d crossed. I know I was. We’d been searching for signs of water without much luck until finally I noticed the horse flaring his nostrils, as if he were taking a sudden interest in something. Up ahead was a small shallow depression that had formed underneath a smooth rock face overhang. From the way it looked, it promised to be a small collecting basin.
I was concentrating on that overhang when the Morgan suddenly pricked up his ears. The years had given me enough trust in that stallion to
know something was wrong. His head turned quickly to the left and almost simultaneously I caught a glint of light reflecting off something metal on a ridge about 100 yards off.
Everything happened so fast I’m still not sure which came first. There was a puff in the dirt near me, and a sharp
, a sound that could have only come from a rifle shot.
I turned in the saddle, drew my Colt, and fired. It was a long ways off to hit anything with a handgun, but mine was purely a reflex action. Turning suddenly like that must have saved me, but the only thing I really remember before everything went black was flinching in pain and grabbing for my head.
I came to, sprawled, face down, at the bottom of the gully, tortured by a loud
sound that seemed louder inside my head than it did from its source, a nearby swarm of bees. Even dazed as I was, I knew it wouldn’t be smart just to sit up and start moving around. Whoever had shot me might still be around, and I had no way of knowing how long I’d been out.
The dust caked into my mouth and nose as I laid there playing ’possum. It seemed like a good half hour before even I dared open my eyes. After hearing nothing but those bees, I finally felt safe enough to roll over slowly and check myself. Putting a hand to my head, I found the whole right side covered with dried blood. There was no way to tell how much I’d lost, but at least the bones felt intact. Once again I was grateful for the hard head my ma always accused me of having.
Getting up was a chore, but somehow I managed. After taking stock, I realized my pistol was missing from its holster, and began anxiously searching around until I finally found it half buried in the dirt in front of me. The fall must have covered it over with dust.
I probably wouldn’t be alive now were it not for my angle of fall. Had my pistol been visible, it would surely have attracted too much attention to ignore. It stood to reason that whoever had bushwhacked me hadn’t bothered to enter the gully to make sure I was dead. There was plenty of my blood in the sand, but no boot marks other than my own were present, which confirmed my suspicion.
Head wounds tend to bleed more than other kinds, and many times appear worse than they actually are. That must have been the reason I was mistakenly left for dead. Regardless of how I looked, my head was pounding so bad I had a hard time convincing myself I wasn’t still going to end up dead, anyway. I felt downright critical.
Whether barely alive or not, I had lost a lot of blood and had no way of knowing if I was going to pass out again. One thing I did know, though— I had to reach water in a hurry. Unfortunately, in my condition, even the short climb back up that small incline was tough. Just crawling twenty feet winded me so much I had to pause repeatedly, and panted for several minutes at a time before finally reaching the top.
As I feared, my horse was gone and I was left alone, with no help in sight. Worse yet, there was no canteen. I stumbled forward a few yards, and then slid back down toward the overhang, following
the sound of the bees. At first I didn’t see any sign of water, just that large rock balanced over a six foot round basin-like projection sitting right below the overhang. The bees were buzzing all around it.
After reaching it, I put my back against the wall and pushed hard with my legs against the edge of the rock. It took a couple of tries, but I finally managed to shove it over. Sure enough, a small pool of water had collected underneath.
I removed the bandanna from around my neck, and used it to soak my head. The water was warm and full of sand, but I wasn’t in any shape to be particular. I drank my fill, and then curled up under the overhang, falling asleep almost immediately.
I wasn’t really sure what time I awoke, or that it was even the same day for that matter. I drank again, this time as much as possible. When it comes to water, I’ve never believed in small amounts. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better to drink all you can, when you can, especially if you may not get another chance. That was especially true in my case since there was nothing around that might be of use to carry water.
I had a powder flask in my shoulder pouch that could have been emptied for that purpose, but it wouldn’t hold enough water for a good mouthful. More importantly, if I ran into whoever ambushed me, that gunpowder would be sorely needed.
I took a small rag out of my side pouch and ran it through the pistol barrel, using a small twig as a guide. I also checked the percussion caps, and removed what dust I could. The rest I cleaned
with my shirt, after first plugging the cylinder chambers with some beef tallow I always carried in an old snuff box. Pa had taught me to use tallow or beeswax to seal the cylinder off so as to protect the powder from moisture, and to prevent accidental multiple chamber flashes.
I suddenly remembered having seen the rifle flash from up on the hill off to my left, so, after another short rest, it was the first place I headed. After about a seventy-five to a hundred yard climb up the ridge, I came across the body of a dead chestnut mare. Judging by the wounds, my pistol shot had fractured its right front pastern.
At that distance mine had been nothing but a fluke shot. It may have thrown the assassin’s aim off, and probably saved my life, but I regretted having hit the mare nevertheless. Whoever shot me finished her off with a head shot, and then stole my bay.
As I sat down next to that dead mare, I resolved to get even, regardless of what it took. I studied the area carefully, taking my time to read the signs. That’s when I was reminded of Sprout.