His heart beat so fast that moonless night that it threatened to explode from his chest. He buried his face into the dry ground, heaving bits of broken twigs and brittle leaves into his mouth and nose. Desperate as he was for air, his driving thought was only silence, not to make a sound.
He soon heard the fast canter of horses and the staccato commands in Spanish the horse men spoke to each other as they covered ground faster than he thought possible. Face down in a grove of mesquite trees, he pulled his ancient .22 rifle under him and willed himself to blend in with the ground, chameleon like.
It had seemed like a desperate idea, but good one at the time to his 13 year old mind. His family was hungry. Since his mom had kicked his abusive, alcoholic dad out of the house once and for all, food had been scarce. It ripped his heart to hear his little sisters whimper from hungry bellies as they slept. It made his soul ache to hear his mama weep softly at night when she thought they were all asleep.
He was old enough to help out and this big ranch that bordered his town was one of the most expansive in the world. He'd even heard President Woodrow Wilson had come hunting here once, and Teddy Roosevelt still came for adventures. This ranch had plenty of wild deer and hogs, more than enough to keep his family from starving, and all the other hungry ones.
But this ranch also had a reputation; maybe based in truth, but also maybe just to intimidate. Trespassers were not welcome, particularly not poaching trespassers. Even hungry ones. The ranch owners let it be known that trespassers would be shot, no questions asked, and their bodies buried where they fell. There'd been too many tales of people who'd disappeared, last seen headed for the ranch lands, to discount any threat like that as idle.
And now, here he was, caught in the cross hairs of an armed, mounted search party. Judging by their clipped and purposeful commands to each other, they were on to him. His threadbare overalls didn't do much to protect his skin from the mesquite thorns that swaddled him in this low slung stand of trees. His bare feet, though leathery tough, were still nicked and cut from the harsh stones he couldn't see in the inky black during his stumbling run. Despite all, though, he kept still, even when a horse's hoof clomped so near that the dirt it kicked up spattered the back of his head.
He exhaled slowly as the rider moved on, sweeping the range with the net of the other riders. He knew they'd be back; that was their way. They wouldn't quit until they found their prey.
He made his decision, and later, when others spoke of this night, they would brand his choice as foolish, but at this point, nothing mattered except getting off that godforsaken place and back to his home with mama and his little sisters.
He moved, ever so slowly at first, drawing himself inch by inch to a crouched position. He couldn't hear the riders anymore, but he had no idea which way to run because he'd gotten hopelessly turned around in the first chase.
An instinct he'd never had before arose so quickly that it hit his legs before thought came and he was running, blindly, without even the rifle, running sightlessly into the opaque night through tangled brush groves that slapped and pierced his face, through a merciless gauntlet of needle-like yucca leaves, and through what else he didn't know, just that his legs kept driving him.
His breath came in little yips now, and at one point he realized the warmth on his bare feet was blood oozing from a dozen wounds, but he plowed on.
He felt the blinding agony when the front of his foot banged into a rock that launched him into what felt like tiny fires of hell. Stunned, he rolled and knew then he had plunged headfirst into a looming cactus. The adrenaline, though, that fueled his flight pulled him back onto his feet, made him forget the countless cactus spines that drove through him now, and pushed him on.
People later estimated he ran more than three hours that night, so turned around he was, until he was able to come to a clearing just as the sun broke the horizon and get his bearings.
He was incoherent when the railroad yard man found him, so swollen and bloody and bruised and with hardly a stitch of his overalls intact that he didn't look human.
It took several days for Mama and the other good ladies who came to care for him to piece together what had actually happened to him that night. They almost lost him from a fever that then came on him and damaged his heart. But he pulled through, once again.
And not once, not ever in his long life to come, even though he grew to live in a fine house so close to it that his back yard abutted one of its fences, did he ever set foot on that ranch again.
My grandma was one of those little sisters in this story who had to go to bed hungry. She and all her siblings, as well as her mama, revered this eldest brother who continued to look after and care for them all.