As you leave Casa Rotunda walk down the dirt road to the dead end, take a right under an overhead canopy of pines and eucalyptus branches covering the bright blue Mexican sky. Climb an incline and you’ll see a spacious corral surrounded by a white wooden fence with a metal sculpted toro inside, an exchange for money due. There in front of you is the trailer where the vaquero and his son lived.
The vaquero’s mother had been searching for him for three weeks. I’d been holding his water money. He’d ridden El Nino to the beach, leading a contingent of Americans the weekend before he disappeared. He’d appeared troubled since separating from his family, not his usual jaunty easy-going self with a wave for every guy and a smile for every girl. His son was still living with him, but the rest of his family had gone.
We’d been friends since before he was fifteen. He’d trip down the hill in chaps so long they dragged on the ground behind him, and his spurs jingled softly scratching the hard surface of earth that led to my house.
He’d helped me with my horses for over twenty years. I’d owned four. Marimba was my first, an old war horse who knew how to dance. Two different vaqueros exercised him twice a week and my friend walked him to his final resting place some fourteen years ago. At the time I owned a handsome big, brown gelding with four white socks above his hoofs. The Mexicans named him Shoes. I changed it to Zapatos. I also took care of my neighbor’s horse, Romeo while she worked state-side. He was a one-eyed brown bomber, well known at the local rodeos as a strong, tireless steed. Then I bought the pinto, El Nino, the baby. I’d always wanted a pinto since the days of Duel in the Sun, the film, do you remember the trick pinto pony ridden by Gregory Peck? El Nino came to me green-broke. After riding him for two years, he threw me off like a bucking bronco breaking my glasses. I was too old to fall. I worried I’d break something more debilitating than sun-glasses.
The vaquero took over his training becoming the sole rider of my tri-color horse. Nervous and high-strung back then, he continually was plagued with shying, sudden turns and bucking, but managing him easily, the vaquero looked grand and athletic in the saddle. The pinto never became completely calm. He was always a handful, shying at every piece of paper on the trail, at every noise in the brush, bucking each time he left my corral.
In his mid-thirties, the vaquero had one son with eyes so big and round and black they seemed haunting. The lad could ride and rope a horse almost as well as his father. Now nine-years-old, he’d been helping his dad since he was three. His cowboy boots never completely reached the stirrups, but never mind. Together they saddled and rounded up horses grazing in the back canyons to lead the Americans on horseback to the beach.
News travels fast. The vaquero was dead. What? I couldn’t believe these words. It couldn’t be true. But it was. They’d found him lying in the arroyo, his arm draped across his face, a gun nearby. He was hardly recognizable. Some said it was suicide, but circumstances looked suspicious. He was too young and vigorous — I couldn’t imagine. Nothing made sense. There was no obvious evidence of foul play. La Mision is a small, tight knit community. There had been trouble. Neighbors didn’t ask questions. Everyone was respectful and quiet.
When I heard the news, I felt some of the old pangs of loss I had twenty years earlier when my son died.
His three brothers living in the area built him a stately mausoleum. They placed a photo of the vaquero and his son covering the entire side of the building. A neighbor who worked at the nursery across from my house brought me an armful of purple and white long stemmed flowers to take to the service.
As I entered the building his son stood in the doorway looking up at me, his eyes dark and true were filled with questions. I hadn’t seen him in several months. I swept him into my arms and hugged and kissed him, then lay the flowers beside the urn on the alter. The vaquero’s chaps and spurs were lying next to the podium. My friend lit a candle.
My heart was heavy — what about his son? what would happen to him? Some said he was with his mother and sisters living in an orphanage across the way. Who would ride my pinto now? Who would stumble down the hill anytime I called to ask the vaquero to round up my horses, trim their feet, shoe them, fix a fence, roof my house, bring me water to fill my pila, or build a chicken coop? A loss of a life gone somewhere somehow into the deep blue Mexican sky, leaving many questions…
But as my philosopher father told me long ago there are no answers. And being the philosopher’s daughter my questions remain.