Thursday, October 23, 2014

When Gabriel Blows His Horn

(As I've been cautioned to do, I'll neither confirm nor deny the truth of this. I will say I've heard this story, from different sources, for many years. I've put it all together into a story form, and although it's a departure from the stories I usually write, I felt it needed to be told.)

The burly man chewed the wad of tobacco in his mouth impassively and spat suddenly into the dust, splashing the dark brown liquid onto the worn boots of the teenaged boy nearest him.

The boy flinched but didn’t take his eyes off the large man on horseback, who was now talking, even though it was in English, a language none of the twenty teenaged boys standing before him could understand.  He turned to a shorter man, also on horseback, with a handlebar mustache that curled almost from ear to ear on his plump face, and said, “Gabe, tell ‘em.”

The stout man, Gabriel, began to speak, and the boys’ faces relaxed in relief as he repeated what the first man said, this time in the native Spanish the boys understood.

“He says for you to listen, because he’s not going to repeat himself. You come with us to work this roundup. It’s three months work to bring all the cattle in from the northern pastures, branding, dehorning, castrating, and anything else that needs to be done. You’ll work seven days a week. The ranch will give you use of a horse and your grub, but you supply your boots and clothes. You may carry a knife on you, but no weapons.”

“You come across any outlaws or wild animals- you either take care of them with the knife or hope that your horse can outrun them. You’ll get your pay, $15 a month, at the end of the three months, but only if you work hard. If you turn out to be lazy Mexicans, you’ll get what a lazy Mexican deserves.”

As Gabriel finished, the tobacco chewing man rode his horse silently in front the new ranch hands. He stopped in front of one, Rico, and spat a virulent stream with precision just short of the boy’s booted toes. He turned to Gabriel and said, “Ask him where he got those boots.”

Gabe looked at Rico’s boots even as he began translating. They were polished and hand tooled, things of beauty amidst the dusty, misshapen footwear pocked with holes sported by the others.

Rico kept his gaze fixed on the ground as he answered softly. “They were my grandfather’s. He was a master saddlemaker in Nuevo Leon.” What Rico didn’t say, but what filled his mind was the scene from the night before, his mother sobbing as she gave them to him. Since his father had been killed by bandits on the road to town the year before, 16 year old Rico struggled to help get enough food on the table for the younger sisters and brothers who sometimes cried in their sleep, they were so hungry. When this opportunity to work on a large ranch on the U.S. side of the Rio Bravo came up, he couldn’t pass it up for the sure money it would bring them, even though his mother was broken hearted by his decision.

“Son,” she’d said quietly, “take these with you. They were made by your grandfather and worn by him until he died. May they keep you safe with every step.” Rico nodded as he somberly accepted them. She stroked his cheek even as tears streamed down hers.

And now, questioned about the boots, the only sign Rico showed of the struggle within to steady his composure were small pink patches of color on his cheeks.

Although Gabriel had already turned away from Rico after translating his answer to the boss man, Rico added, “I will be a good worker for you. I’ll work hard every day. You’ll see.”

The ragtag group of boys set off on foot behind the mule drawn wagon that would lead them to the base camp, twelve miles distant.

And just as the boss man had predicted, the work was bone crushing hard. They slept with their head on a saddle each night, curled under a saddle blanket to leach some warmth on the frigid October nights. Their days began well before the sun rose and continued until the darkness staunched their vision. They ate quietly most evenings, too exhausted to even banter. Rico, though, would not go to sleep until he’d buffed his boots to a sheen.

One of the other boys finally asked him, “Why, why spend time on those?”

Rico answered, “Because when I get back home, I’m going to give my mother the money I’ve made and put these boots away for the son I’ll have someday. I want to keep them as nice as I can for him. I’ll tell him of how hard I’ve worked here and that I’ve also worked to keep these boots for him. That way he’ll know I was thinking about him, even before he was born.”

The other boys chuckled at that as they drifted off to sleep. They couldn’t even think of the next day, their thoughts devoured by exhaustion, much less of the sons and families they’d have in the future.

Finally, the end of the three months came. The cattle had been branded, dehorned, castrated, and safely moved to their winter pastures. The boss man came by that evening, Gabriel by his side. “Tomorrow will be your last day on the job. When you hear Gabe blow his bugle, you line up here and we’ll settle up.” As Gabe translated, he held up his bugle from his Confederate Army days.

The ranch hands once again laid their heads on their saddles that night, but now with lighthearted laughter punctuating the crisp air. Plans for their trips home to Mexico floated through the night. None of them had ever had so much money in their hands before as they would have tomorrow. Rico, though,  continued his nightly ritual, polishing his boots, adding a little saddle wax, until his moonlit reflection illuminated the burnished leather.

Early the next morning, Gabriel’s bugle pierced the morning. The eager boys scrambled up, pulling on their hats and boots. Rico gave his boots one last swipe with his shirt sleeve before he hurried off to from the lateral line the boss man expected from them.

Gabriel sat on his horse on one side, still panting from his bugle call, and the boss man flanked the other side of the boys. The boss man spat, and said, “Look straight ahead, right there into the sun, while we get what we owe you.” The boys squinted and stood as tall as their frames allowed, proud of their hard work and expectant of their reward. Both men on horseback moved back to a stand of brush about ten yards behind the boys and the boss man dropped his arm in a signal. Ten men stepped from the brush behind the boys squinting into the sun, pistols drawn.

A fusillade of gunshots tore into the boys, so fierce and unexpected that even the horses reared and snorted. As the dust floated in the sun’s early rays over the fallen boys, the boss man rode through the bloody quagmire. He stopped at one body where polished boots shone in the early day like a beacon. Over his shoulder, he called out to Gabriel, “Pull the boots off of that one. They’re too good to waste on a dead Mexican. And make sure you burn those bodies good this time. Don’t want no coyote problems like we had with the last batch.”

64 comments:

  1. I was waiting for the happy ending that never came, dear Shelly. I'm sure grim scenarios like this one have been repeated often throughout history. They remind us that life is not fair and that it can quickly and unexpectedly be snatched away from us. The greatest lesson, the example set by young Rico, is to live your life with honor and die with dignity.

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    1. Shady: So true, my friend. Living and dying with dignity is about all we can control. I'm sorry there's not a happy ending with this one. I so wish there had been.

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  2. Oh, Shelly. That's tragic, but you told it so beautifully. You are a great writer.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: Made even more tragic by apparently happening more than once. And thank you, friend-

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  3. This story is as sad as it is well written. The stories you tell are extremely powerful and deserve a much wider audience.

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    1. Stephen: I'm so glad times have changed since then, although we have a ways to go. Thank you for your very kind words, my friend.

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  4. You are right, Shelly. This needed told, and you did it well. My heart goes out to all those who trust, who do their best with honour, and who end up exploited even to death.

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    1. jenny_o: There are so many who have needlessly died like that...it is heartbreaking to think humans are valued so cheaply.

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  5. Oh my Shelly you wrote this with such emotion and empathy I have tears running down my cheek. It is so very sad and knowing it is/may be true breaks that heart of mine. Great writing. Hug B

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    1. Buttons: It is still incomprehensible to me that people could think of other people like that. And thank you, my friend.

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  6. Oh my goodness. I was not expecting such an ending to this.That is heartbreaking. Very moving.

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    1. Nonnie: It had been weighing on me for a while to write, and it was difficult to broach, but I'm glad it's out.

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  7. Shelly, I always love to read your stories. This one is so well written, but such a sad ending.

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    1. Dawn: It really is beyond sad, but I'm glad to finally tell this story. Thank you, friend-

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    1. HOOTIN ANNI: And, oh, this was not the half of it!

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  9. What a heart-rending story. I did not see that coming until the boys lined up. Wicked, wicked world.

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    1. vanilla: And I suspect in your travels you've driven very near to where this is purported to have happened.

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  10. Hi Shelly! I can't tell you how this story impacted me. It's so awful. And I guess what makes it so bad is the fact that I'm sure it has some basis in truth. I am stunned.
    Ceil

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    1. Ceil: I really debated about writing this, but I hope doing so is some small acknowledgement that the people lived, and then died horrifically. I've heard it from an array of sources, and I'm inclined to believe, like you.

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  11. Didn't see that coming until the boys formed a line in the end. I love the way you developed the characters in this [relatively] short narrative.

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    1. Secondary: It s still so tragic, over 100 years later. I think about those boys often.

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  12. Sadly, I think things like this still occur - not just at the US/Mexico border but all over the world. We humans can be extremely cruel to one another.

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    1. Carol: It is an ongoing tragedy: that we can't learn to value other humans, even after all these years on this planet.

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  13. :( Awful that this sort of thing still happens.

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    1. Romance: Although this was in the 19th century, you're right in that it still happens today, and how sad that is.

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  14. Humanity can break your heart.

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    1. Rita: Over and over and over again.

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  15. I didn't see it coming either. It's a sad story well told.

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    1. Chicken: It's still so horrible to think about. And thank you-

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  16. Oh my goodness what a story, so sad but so beautifully told, makes one wonder is it true or not

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    1. Jo-Anne: It's hard to tell with these old stories, but it's been passed down in a number of families, and they believe it to be true. And thank you-

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  17. No happy ending there! I hope it's not true. Tragic!

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  18. I knew right from the start that I was heading into something painful.

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    1. Maria: Yes, and I am sorry about that- just so tragic all the way around,

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  19. God welcomed them home with the greatest love we cannot imagine. To draw up this story from a buried past is so important. We are so endlessly fascinated with the now, with the glossy finished product ready for sale, that we fail to see the exploitation behind the scenes. Could someone in power now do that? Yes. So real and tragic, I am on my knees.

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    1. Jenny: So true- and that is what is so horrifying, that it could and probably does happen again and again. Your first sentence is such a pure comfort- thank you, my friend.

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  20. Dear Shelly, all the young men did backbreaking labor in the expectation of being paid $45. And they turned out simply to be fodder out of which the tobacco-chewing boss man made his fortune. It seems to me that too often people who have power and money feel that the rest of humankind is simply there to be used and exploited and disposed of in such a way that the "coyotes" won't find the buried bodies.

    Ramon's boots, I suspect, will fit the man just fine and I wonder if the day will ever come when he realizes the evil he has done repeatedly. There may be a story in those boots. A story the boots tell of their life beyond Ramon whose deepest desire was to help his family and to carry on his grandfather's legacy.

    Your writing is truly a gift to all of us and I look forward to the day when you write a book that will arc time in its compassion. Peace.

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    1. Dee: Although the people who've told me this passed down story didn't say what happened to the two evil ones here, I do know that what goes around comes around, someway, somehow. I love your idea of the boots having a story to tell- really profound! And thank you, my friend~

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  21. I'd hope that story wasn't true, but fear deep down that it could be.

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  22. Those boots were the story, not the outlaws. The image of that young kid polishing his future has left an imprint.

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    1. Linda: You are so right- and in the horror of how this unfolded, it's those boots I'll think of.

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  23. You really know how to write an emotional piece...wow...

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    1. Optimistic: Those poor boys- I hope that in a small way, this is a voice for them now.

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  24. I really was not expecting such a tragic ending. And to think that this happened more than once is horrendous.
    A sad and tragic tale wonderfully told.
    I really do love your stories and agree with the person who said that they deserve a wider audience :-) xx

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    1. jazzygal: It is horrifyingly tragic, but I felt it needed to be told. And thank you, my friend~

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  25. Very well told and beautifully written Shelly. I wish it was an isolated incident, but I know better.
    When the white men "took over" the south west (and many other places), everyone who wasn't white, suffered for it.

    I live VERY close to the the Mission San Juan Capistrano. It serves as a reminder to me, as I wish it did to others, of the cruelty, slavery and genocide of the native populations, in the southwest, by the Spanish.

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    1. Pat: For the life of me, I'll never understand how someone can think that exploiting others is going to make the world a better place. SMH.

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    2. I'm right there with you! Out here, the whites, Spanish and even the Mexicans, all had their turn at abusing the indigenous people.

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    3. Pat Tillet: A very sad facet of our history~

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  26. Oh man, wasn't expecting that ending - how sad, in more ways than one.

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    1. Saimi: On so many levels, this was such a difficult story to decide to write.

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  27. I have so much admiration for you: taking a story you've heard in various forms and pinning it down into powerful written words like this. This made me feel like I was reading one of the short stories that I teach to my students; it's so fantastically told, and it makes its points like kicks to the gut.

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  28. A horrifying story, beautifully told. You are such a gifted writer, Shelly, making so compelling a story we need to hear.

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    1. Dr. Kathy: I am thankful their story is being told and their lives appreciated. Thank you, friend~

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  29. I was suspicious at the beginning when you said that the teen-aged boys had to work three months before being paid. It's very sad to know that human-kind has so many evil people - always have, and probably always will.

    As all the others have said - sad story, but very well written. I hope that heaven is real and that that's where the boys are; especially the one who had hopes and dreams, and his father's boots.

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    1. Anita: I just have to believe that's where they are, my friend~ thank you!

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    2. Happy New Year to You and Your Family, Shelly!

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    3. Anita: Thank you, sweet friend! May this be the happiest of new years for you and your dear ones!

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  30. Outstanding writer, caved to facebook. Missed.

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    1. vanilla: Touche, friend. I shall return in the next week or so!

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