KELSO, THE CAPORAL, thrust his head into the door of the ranch store-room and called with mock seriousness to the half-dozen evening idlers who were lounging here and there before the counter:
“Habrá mentidero.2 There comes Don Gregorio Jáquez.”
Down the road which led to the ranch house came a humble caravan, consisting of two lightly loaded burros driven by a wizened, fair-skinned little old man riding a thin and spiritless claybank. The donkeys’ cargo consisted of a miscellany of items of horseman's gear—quirts, headstalls, reins, spur-straps, hackamores and lariats, of every conceivable material from leather, rawhide and horsehair to sisal hemp and cotton.
The donkey's loads constituted Don Gregorio's economic excuse for existence. In the winters and throughout the windy season, when traveling was unpleasant, he spent his time at home on the little hill ranch operated by his sons, where he industriously busied himself in increasing his stock in trade; but when April brought in the seca (the dry season) he took to the road with his burros and traveled from ranch to ranch and from ranch to pueblo, peddling the products of his handicraft.
But the universal welcome he received and the remarkably good market which his artefacts always enjoyed depended only secondarily upon the excellent quality of these and the constant demand which existed for them. For Don Gregorio was a teller of tales, a liar of infinite parts, one to whom it was a privilege to listen; one whose grave prevarications would run from mouth to mouth for the benefit of those whose ill-fortune had caused them to miss the mentidero over which at every stop he presided.
The donkeys having been relieved and their cargo stored safely, Don Gregorio was borne away by a favored and flattered host to supper. At dusk, he came forth and spread his wares by the fire which his prospective customers and audience had lit at the corner of one of the main corrals. The fire served a social purpose only, since the night was warm; it furnished light and identified the gathering place for the benefit of late comers.
Before any other business might be proceeded to, however, the matter of the purchase of a proper amount of the peddler's stock must be consummated; for Don Gregorio never consented to relax and display his talents until a sufficient number of articles had been disposed of to arouse in him an expansive and care-free humor. Until he judged that he had glutted the market he was business-like and taciturn, but when satisfied with the evening's sales and barter he would relax on his blanket and wait for a cue.
There was a regular technique, universally practiced, in getting Don Gregorio started and keeping him going. He never broke vulgarly into boastful narrative, but required that his audience furnish him with a framework upon which to embroider. One tale told, he would subside into silence until he chose to accept another cue, and so he would sit even into the small hours, unless some rare exhibition of levity or unbelief by some uninstructed member of his audience broke up the sitting prematurely. Don Gregorio required absolute gravity and unconditional acceptance of his tales as the price of performance; he tolerated no ribaldry, and if disturbed by any breach of decorum he would rise with dignity, recover his blanket and the remains of his stock, and stalk away in returning taciturnity to sleep.
“My cow, the red one, is sick,” proffered a voice from the periphery of the firelight. “I cannot tell what is the matter with her. She grazes and still gives a little milk, but she is gradually wasting away. I have even tried feeding her, but it doesn't help.”
“Perhaps she has swallowed a campamocha,”3 suggested one. “If she has, you will soon have no cow.”
“Perhaps she has swallowed something else,” spoke a third. “I once fed a cow spoiled peaches in August, and she swallowed the seeds. They did her a mischief. It is amazing, what things brute animals can swallow.”
“That is true, and your remark reminds me,” said Don Gregorio, clearing his throat importantly, “of a very interesting adventure of mine in my younger days. I was on my way to the fair at El Valle. You will understand that this was long ago, in the time of the Comanches and Apaches, when the people of the little towns had some pride in themselves, and held their own fiestas, and did not consider, when the matter of amusement came to their minds, that their only recourse was to ride to the city and get drunk. In those days, before the rails had come, we took our pleasures and held our celebrations at home, and if there were headaches and maybe a corpse or two after the fiesta, it was all regarded as entre familia, business that was amicably settled among those most concerned; and if fines were assessed, they went to the pocket of our own alcaldes, and not to pay for cigars and tequila for the comandantes in Chihuahua or Parral.
“But in the matter of this particular adventure of mine—as I have said, I was on the way to the fair at El Valle. Such a fiesta we don't see any more—a full week of celebration of the good year that the saints had sent, a year in which the rains had come like water poured by the women out of a can on the flowers they cherish around the jacal, just what was necessary, at just the right time, so that the corn grew and grained and hardened almost of itself, and the grass shot up so fast that you could see it growing, till a man on a tall horse could pluck the heads from it without leaning from his saddle, and the cows with sucking calves were so fat that the only care of the vaqueros was to ride around and help them up when they lay down, for they were as helpless with fat as they are in the days in May after a nine-months’ drouth. Such years as we had then! They do not come any more, since the rails came.
“But as I have said, I was on my way to this fiesta; I had a good horse, the one whom I called the Wasp. He was only a colt still—I had finished the first stages of breaking him in, and was still riding him with the bozal,4 but he was already trained to lead like a kitten and to stand like an oak. I had been on the road all day, and was still far from the town, when late in the afternoon I saw a something in the road behind me that simulated a whirlwind and which was coming in my direction with great speed. I observed it carefully, and in the end I said to myself, ’Gregorio, amigo, that is no whirlwind that you see; it is a troop of Apaches that have winded you and are running you down.’ And I gave the spurs and the quirt to the Wasp, and he answered like a good horse, bucking a little to start out, by which we lost some time; but after he had amused himself he settled into a proper run, giving all he had, and so we led those savages for a long while.
“But the Wasp was a colt, not a hardened horse, and he had been carrying me all day; and I could see that the ponies of those heathens were gaining on us. Soon we could hear their yelling, by which these miscreants used to encourage each other when they were chasing a Christian, and soon even the hoofbeats began to sound in my ears, so near that they seemed to be striking almost on the back of my neck. And seeing that they were gaining fast, I said to myself, ’Gregorio, amigo, this won't do, unless you want to be staked out on an anthill before sundown; but if you want to get away, amigo, out of the trail with you, and lose them in the mezquital.” And I swerved the little Wasp out of the path, and we plunged into the mesquite, which at this place was exceedingly tall and thick, with that whole troop of accursed Indians pounding after.
“I looked everywhere for a place to hide, but there was nothing, and the savages almost had me by the hair; but just at the last moment, when there seemed to be no chance left, the holy saints, to whom I had been industriously commending myself, furnished me with a refuge.
“For it happened that I ran almost full tilt into a bull—a big black ten-year-old, with white feet and a big blaze, lying under a mesquite right in my path. He had just finished his cud, and was yawning widely after swallowing it when I checked the Wasp to keep from crashing into him; and seeing that cavern gaping in front of me, I said, ’Gregorio, the saints have sent you this refuge; this is the reward of your prayers and of a life spent in the pursuit of truthfulness and virtue!’ And without the loss of a moment I cast myself off the Wasp and dived in, not even waiting to turn my spurs.5
“As those of you who are acquainted with the happenings of my life are undoubtedly aware, I have been in many tight places, but the gullet of that black bull was the tightest that I ever was compelled to scramble through; and it was the more difficult since I had neglected to remove my spurs, which tickled his throat and caused him to cough violently, so that I lost ground several times, and once or twice I was in great danger of being spewed entirely forth. But I persisted, and in the end, by much wriggling, I arrived with the saints’ blessing in a large open space which I judged rightly to be the beast's stomach. Here I rested for a while, and when I had recovered my breath and spirit I became curious to look around and examine the place where I was. I felt about and found a pile of grass which the animal had recently swallowed, drew my flint and steel from my pocket, and lighted a wisp by the light of which I examined the apartment in which I found myself. I discovered it to be large enough to be comfortable in, and, overcome by fatigue, I made myself a bed from the grass-pile and went to sleep.
“When I awoke, I at first did not know where I was, but when I stretched out my arms on either side and encountered the feel of the beast's ribs the entire adventure of the day before came back to me. I was then conscious of a raging hunger, for it had been several hours before the Apaches had struck my trail that I had rested and eaten. The Wasp had my provisions outside, tied on my saddle; they were therefore out of reach, for I did not feel that it would be prudent to come out yet, for fear the Apaches might be lurking. For a little I was at loss, fearing starvation; but it is well said by the proverb that the man of his hands always falls on his feet. Observing the great plenty of prime beef that surrounded me on every side, I realized that only a pastor6 or a gachupín7 would be stupid enough to starve or even suffer inconvenience under such circumstances. I had my sheath-knife, and in less time than it takes to saddle a gentle horse I had a fine fire going from the fuel which was lying ready at hand, and shortly I had a fat steak broiling on the coals.
“I will not bore you with an account of the further circumstances of my stay in the belly of that bull; particularly as it was lacking in variety of any kind; all that I did, when attacked by hunger, was to strip down and broil a steak, and then to sleep until hunger came upon me again. This went on for several days—three, in fact, as I found out upon my emergence; at the end of this time, judging that the coast could now reasonably be expected to be clear, and a survey of my surroundings revealing to me that the supply of meat was running dangerously low, I decided to come out.
“When I had dived in, I had, by rare presence of mind, kept a tight hold on the Wasp's halter rope, and this proved to be a great aid to me in climbing out; and I further helped myself by irritating the bull's throat with my spurs, so that, partly by hand-over-hand work on the rope and partly by the impulse of the bull's coughs, I managed to drag myself up and out. It was noon when I emerged, and there, at the end of the rope which I still held in my hand, was the Wasp, all sleek and rested and ready to mount.
“I got on him and pursued my journey, arriving in El Valle in the middle of the fair instead of at the beginning as I had intended, owing to the time lost in that black bull's stomach. But I took part nevertheless with no little credit to myself in various of the contests which were held on those last days.
“The last day of the fiesta was devoted to a glorious bullfight, and by ten o'clock everybody of any consequence was seated or standing in the galleries at the bullring. I, of course, was there among the others, for I am a connoisseur of bullfighting, and I was then, being young, even somewhat of an amateur, having achieved some exploits in the ring which had been judged worthy of notice, some of which I may sometime relate to you if I am properly reminded and in the mood. But to return to the matter at hand; after the alcalde and the officials of the fiesta had taken their seats, and the preliminary parade had circled the ring, the troupe retired, as always, the gate was thrown open and a bull charged in.
“When my eyes fell upon this bull, I could hardly believe them; there he was, black, white-footed, blaze-faced—that identical beast to whom I was indebted for refuge from the Apaches, and for three days’ hospitality as well. I leaped to my feet and addressed myself to the alcalde:
“‘Señor alcalde, señor alcalde!’
“‘What is wanted?’ he asked, surprised.
“‘Señor alcalde, you cannot fight this bull; he is unfit to perform in any ring. He is not a complete bull—his entire insides are missing; and it would be a discredit to this fiesta to use him.’
“At that, the alcalde laughed, and all the rest of the people there assembled hooted and jeered, thinking I was drunk, even that early in the day; and the alcalde would have proceeded with the signal to begin the game, but I insisted:
“‘Señor alcalde, for your own and the credit of all this assembly, I implore you not to fight this bull! If you do, you will be a jeer and a laughing stock forever. Will you have it said that at this fair you were so stingy that you fought a hollow bull, a bull with no vitals? If you do not believe my word, open him, then, and let your own eyes tell you that I know what I am talking about.’
“At first they only continued to hoot and laugh; but in the end, so much did I insist, the alcalde consented to make the examination. The bull was thrown, his throat cut, and his stomach opened; and, as you will anticipate, there was nothing inside, nothing—just the hide stretched over the ribs, and where the stomach should have been, there was the pile of dead ashes where I had made my fires and done my cooking.
“When the people saw this, they were dumfounded, and when they had heard my story they were even more so. And so much did they wonder at my most singular adventure, and so often in the following days was I called upon to relate it, that I was compelled to linger for over a week in the town after the fair was over, eating and drinking of the best, the guest of the entire pueblo, and the events of the fair were quite forgotten in the excitement which was aroused by the story of my unique escape from the Apaches.”
There was a short pause, and then one, leaning forward to light a cigarette in the embers, said, “Many notable things happened in the old times.”
“Yes,” said another, “consider the constructions of the ancients. Such houses as were built then—the round towers on the corners, from which to fight the Indians, very ingenious in structure. No mason of these days would know how to build in a circle; all they know about now is squares.”
“The towers at the hacienda of Torreón de los Bacas are very old,” remarked another.
“Of that I can assure you,” said Don Gregorio. “In fact, I believe that I can tell you their age. When they were built, I worked on their construction; I was very young then, only a boy, but I helped to carry mud to set the adobes. They are a little less than my age, about three hundred years old.”
There was another pause, and a voice suggested, “They were very ingenious, the ancients.”
“Yes,” said another, “they possessed many secrets which are no longer known. Consider their skill in handling stock. In these days it is a matter of corrals and many hands, but in the old days one man with his horse and rope was sufficient for himself in anything.”
“It was not only a matter of skill, but also of yerba,”8 asserted another. “The vaqueros of the old times knew secrets which are known no longer. Four saddle-cloths laid in a square in a flat place were enough of a corral in which to capture wild horses, and colts were tamed by knowledge before a man had mounted to their backs. But even so, their skill in riding and with the rope were greater than we have today.”
“I myself, when I was young, and before I became afflicted with rheumatism, had some skill with a rope,” observed Don Gregorio. “I remember a little exploit of mine which took place before I was grown, when I was still so small a boy as to be judged fit for nothing more important than to herd milk cows away from the calves in the rainy season. That year I was working on the Pichagüe hacienda, and the administrator, God rest him, gave me fifty cows to care for; in those days there were none of these fences, and it was my charge to see that the cows fed well, were kept distant from the crops and did not stray in search of their calves, which another boy herded on the opposite side of the ranch. Every day, after the milking in the morning, I drove those cows to their feeding-ground on the flats; I had there my camp under an oak tree, and there I watched them all day and saw them bedded down for the night, after which I slept on my saddle and woke at dawn to herd them back to the ranch for another milking. It was a lazy destiny, fit only for a boy.
“It happened then that Doña Martina, the woman of the administrator, was seven months gone, and was suffering from an antojo.9 Above all things she was oppressed by a yearning for a chontli,10 a yearning so great that for days she would sit gazing into space, not answering when spoken to, and only musing occasionally aloud, ’A chontli…a chontli…’
“So great was her disorder that all those of the hacienda became exercised, and great efforts were made by various inept and stupid individuals to snare a chontli for her, but as you know the chontli is a rare and wary bird, who above all things abhors captivity, and they caught nothing.
“But I came to feel great pity for the woman who was wasting away through her longing for so simple a thing as the possession of a chontli to sit in a cage and sing to her; and one morning before leaving with my cows I spoke to the administrator:
“‘I see that no one has been able to provide a chontli for Doña Martina. If you so desire, I will bring you one for her.’
“‘But most certainly, muchacho, and I will pay you well for one. That woman is about to drive me crazy with her foolish desires. Shall I send another with the cows while you dedicate yourself to catching it?’
“‘That will not be necessary,’ I assured him. ’It happens that I am annoyed by a chontli who sleeps in the boughs of the tree under which I have my camp, and every morning he sings me awake earlier than I like. All that I shall require is a horse-hair cord, twisted in four strands as a riata, made from the tail of a yearling colt and of no more thickness than that of the tail of a rat.’
“And on the following morning the cord, as I had specified it, was ready for me, and during the day I fabricated a proper noose in it, and finally coiled it at my saddle horn in place of my regular riata. And that night I slept on my saddle as ever, and in the morning the chontli woke as usual and began his importunate singing.
“Whereupon I rose and heated my coffee according to custom and after breakfast I brought my pony from his picket and saddled him; and all the while that foolish chontli stood perched on an outermost branch and gave his attention utterly to singing. My horse being saddled, I then mounted, and took a stance some paces away, coiled my little riata and made a tiny noose; then, with great suddenness, I buried my spurs in my pony's ribs and caused him to leap into the air, straight at that chontli sitting on the limb.
“When he saw me coming, he naturally launched himself into flight; but this availed him nothing at all, for my little rope was already hissing through the air, and before he had given a dozen wing-beats the noose had settled around his neck. He gave one frightened squawk, and then I pulled him in; I made a tiny halter about his beak with the rope to keep him from choking himself, and then I tied the other end to my saddlehorn and drove in my cows as usual. He at first plunged and sulked at the end of the rope; but by the time we reached the hacienda he had yielded, and was following me perfectly halter-broken.
“And you may imagine the sensation at the hacienda when I led him in and turned him over at his rope's end to the administrator.”
One of the audience, hunched shapelessly on his heels, proffered rather aimlessly:
“The Indian who is loader for the mule-train that camped on the river last night is the strongest man I have ever seen. I saw him load all eighteen of the mules this morning, thirty-six lifts in all, and each lift six arrobas11 of flour. And when he was through he was panting less than the helpers who steadied the loads and pulled the hitches.”
“Yes, that is pretty good for these days,” said Don Gregorio, “but men now are weaker than they used to be. My strength when I was young was nothing particularly remarkable—I was rated a little stronger than most, but it is indeed true that I excelled, more or less, in everything that is creditable to a man of his hands. I have always felt that intelligence,” and he crooked a finger in a general craneal direction, “is more to be valued than brute strength; but even strength has its uses, when one possesses it.
“I remember an incident which will serve to show to you how strong I then was—for as I have said, I excelled somewhat in strength as well as in the possession of other virtues. It occurred in the blacksmith's shop at Las Mesteñas; I had gone there to have the smith replace a rowell that I had lost, the lack of which I was feeling keenly, as I was riding colts exclusively at the time and the shank of a spur gives a poor hold on a pitching horse. Now it happened that in the smithy at the time there happened to be a most offensive idler, whose name has escaped my memory as a consequence of its being a matter of no consequence or importance. This man, who was known by me to require two men to hold a colt for him when he saddled and mounted it for the first time, yet who aspired to be known as a competent rider and breaker of horses, had the evil taste to crack some pleasantries at my expense, especially claiming that the rowell which was missing from my spur had not been lost but worn out, the inference being that I only rode such horses as were so utterly slothful and thickskinned that spurs were worn out on their hides. I stood everything he said with commendable patience, for I have been always a man of great self-restraint, and finally, the smith having finished his work, I was about to leave the place when he cried jeeringly:
“‘Why the spurs, anyway? They are not needed in the herding of sheep.’
“This insult caused me almost to lose myself, but to make certain that I had heard correctly I demanded:
“‘Is it possible that you have called me a pastor?’
“‘But indeed,’ he declared, even more arrogantly than ever, and deceived by my hitherto mild bearing, ’I have had the pest of wool grease in my nose ever since you came in, and have but now located its source.’
“As all may understand, this was an insult passing all forbearance. I have been called hard things in my time—indeed, even my veracity has once or twice been called in question by people who did not know me intimately—but only once, and that on this occasion, have I been called a pastor.
“I went outside of myself, and it was indeed fortunate for him that I did not remember in my rage the knife which I was carrying, for otherwise this tale would have had another ending. Consumed with fury, I cast my arms about me, searching for a missile to cast at him, and, by a casualty, my fingers closed on the horn of the anvil. I gave it a wrench, not realizing of what I had hold, and such was the strength which my rage added to that which I naturally possessed that the anvil's horn broke off square in my hand at its base, and I cast it with all my force in his face. His terror, blessed be the saints, prompted him to dodge, otherwise I would now be accountable for his life; he fell to one side, and the metal, leaving my hand with all the force I was capable of imparting to it, struck the adobe wall behind him and was so deeply imbedded in it that we had to dig two span's depths before we could recover it for welding back to its proper place.”
“The red colt that Facundo is training is making a fine cutting-horse,” came a voice from the circle. “He is still being ridden with the bozal, yet he follows the stock better than many horses who are fully educated. I would like to have him myself.”
“It is remarkable, what a good strain of horses we have at this hacienda,” remarked another. “With many of them the vaquero hardly has to work, the horse does it all himself.”
“I myself have known some remarkable horses, and have had a part in the education of some that became noteworthy,” said Don Gregorio. “In particular I remember a roan, a speckled one, called the Picado, that I once had. He was little, scrawny, and ugly, with a neck no thicker than my palm, and to look at him you would have said, ’That horse is worth no more than two reales anywhere’—so deceptive was he in appearance. But in my hands he became of inestimable value; so far did his education progress that it was possible, when driving a herd, to stay by the fire in the morning and send him alone up the cañón in which the cattle had been confined for the night to bring them back to the trail. My patrón at that time had me exclusively occupied in transferring the cattle from La Boca, where the stealing was bad, to other ranches which he owned, and this accomplishment of the Picado made it possible for me to live on the trail with all the ease which one enjoys while sitting before the kitchen chimney in winter. I would rise with the dawn and get my coffee and tamales, take the hobbles off the Picado and send him after the cows; while I smoked by the fire he would start them down the cañón, and then come to me to be saddled. So he made life easy for me.
“Rarely did he miss bringing in the full herd, so that in the end I became careless, and often would not count the cows when he appeared with them, but would saddle him and start off as soon as he came out. But for this negligence it came about that he ultimately had occasion to reprove me.
“It happened that on one of my trips I sent him in the morning for the cattle as we had made the custom. He went alone to their bedding ground up the cañón and in due time came out with them and turned them into the trail. I then called him to me, but although he was obedient, I could see that he was excited and uneasy; I had trouble in saddling him, and when I turned him to follow the herd he resisted, and made repeated efforts to return to the cañón. I marvelled greatly, but feeling that he was only suffering from a fit of contrariness, I disciplined him severely and we started out.
“But throughout the morning, that Picado kept continually trying to turn himself back to our stopping place, whinnying anxiously and holding back even against the spur. And I further noticed, after this had happened several times, that at last he began to tap three times with a forefoot each time that he endeavored to induce me to turn back. This most peculiar behavior ended by impressing me, and finally I said to myself, ’What can be in the mind of this flea-bitten rock-crusher? I will find out.’ So instead of compelling him to follow the herd, I gave him his head, and he trotted briskly back, passed our camping place, and entered the cañón. After progressing some distance up its course, he stopped at a forking place where a smaller gulch joined it, and again patted out that signal of three taps with his forefoot, whinnying and indicating that the cause of his agitation was up the course of this fork. Now the entrance to this smaller cañón was impassable for a horse, but not at all so for cattle, for I found tracks of several cow-beasts who had gone up it shortly before. I walked up a little way and found them there, cattle belonging to my herd, who had strayed where he could not follow and bring them back. I had not missed them in my carelessness, and the Picado had led me back that my count might be right when the trail ended. And how many would you suppose that I found them to be? No more and no less than three, the precise number that the Picado had been trying to tell me were missing.
“Ah, I came to value that horse greatly,” said Don Gregorio, rising to his feet and draping his blanket. “And now, señores, if I have your permission, I will retire to sleep. I am not so young as I was, and I feel that as I get older I need more sleep. A thousand excuses.”
1 “Reward me, I bring good news.”
2 “We will hear tales.” Mentidero is a term applied rather loosely to any gathering of which the primary purpose is idle talk.
3 The insect popularly known as “devil-horse” in the South. It is a firm belief in Mexico that any animal swallowing a campamocha along with the grass it crops will inevitably die.
4 That is, without the bridle; a colt's preliminary education is conducted with a pair of reins attached to a horsehair noseband, by which he is taught the elements of bridle-wisdom before he ever has a bit in his mouth.
5 It is etiquette to remove one's spurs, or turn them about so that they a worn over the instep, on dismounting and entering a house.
6 The last word in the vaquero's vocabulary to express clumsiness and stupidity. To be called a pastor (sheep-herder) is the worst insult he can suffer short of obscenity.
7 Literally, a Spaniard, but by extension a tenderfoot.
8 “Herbs”; it is believed that certain of these, rubbed on the hands or worn about the person, have a pacifying effect on horses.
9 A capricious desire for something, often seemingly illogical and childish. Antojos often develop into complexes or fixations. The victim suffers physically and mentally, and all her associates are usually made very uncomfortable until the desire has been gratified. In Pennsylvania a woman suffering from antojos would probably be said to be “hexed.”
10 Popular form of tzintzontli, mocking bird.
11 One hundred fifty pounds.