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The Hardest Ride

Author(s): Gordon Rottman

The Texas-Mexico border, the winter of 1886—The Great Die Up. A raw rift separates Mexicans and Anglos. A loner cowpoke and a mute Mexican girl fight man and nature to reunite.

Out of work cowpoke Bud Eugen comes across Marta, a mute sixteen-year old Mexican girl whose family has been killed by Indians. Bud reluctantly takes her along, even though he’s never had to accommodate another person in his simple life. He’s unable to find anyone willing to take her. In spite of his prejudices, Bud grows to like the spunky girl (and her excellent cooking).

Eventually, they both find work on a border ranch. Here, the relationship between the girl and the young cowboy hesitantly grows. But banditos raid the ranch, kidnapping the rancher’s daughters and Marta. Bud, with twelve other men, pursue the banditos into the most desolate reaches of Mexico. Ambushes and battles with banditos, Rurales, and traitors are constant, and the brutal weather is as much a threat as the man-made perils. Life and death choices are made at every turn as one side gains the advantage, then the other.

The rancher’s daughters are rescued, and the exhausted party turns back. But Bud presses on alone, against insurmountable odds – determined to fulfill an unspoken promise to Marta.

Excerpt


Mrs. Moran fed us fried eggs, ham, frijole beans—nothing like Marta’s—grits, biscuits with pear preserves, and coffee. Seeing we were hired hands now, we ate in the kitchen, which was all right because we didn’t have to worry about fancy manners. Directly after breakfast a coal wagon showed up, and I shoveled its load into a bin. The Mex teamster told me the coal came from Mexico and that Piedras Negras means black rocks, because of the coal mines. Marta helped Yolanda, a handsome, quiet girl, in the kitchen and with cleaning. They surely did a lot of cleaning in that hotel.
I mucked out the stables, cleaned stoves, shoveled coal, and cared for the hotel’s wagon horses and the clientele’s horses for the rest of the week and then some. They even gave me money tips for taking care of their horses.
The next day when I came back from buying a blue plaid flannel shirt to replace my holey one, Mrs. Moran had another sit-down with me. She told me Yolanda had been talking to Marta, asking yes and no questions, which took some time.
“She likes you, Bud.”
“I don’t rightly know why.”
“You saved her life.”
I shrugged. “Only trying to do right.”
“Marta says you treat her right too. That you are a gentleman.”
I had to laugh. “No one ever called me that.”
She laughed too, but said, “Do not undercut yourself.” Then she said, “She is sixteen, having turned last month.”
I nodded. “She tell her name?”
“That is hard to figure, Bud. Yolanda asked her a lot of names, but no luck. She is satisfied with Marta.”
“I like it too.”
“Marta likes the way you part your hair down the middle.” That made me smile. Mrs. Moran got all solemn looking. “Bud, we know why Marta cannot talk.”
I looked at her, “Yes ma’am?”
“Yolanda asked her questions, and Marta parted her hair on the left front. There is a scar there and a bit of dent in her scalp.” She looked grave. “Yolanda worked out that she was kicked by a mule when she was about nine.”
“So she’s got brain damage?”
“It looks like it, but it only means she cannot talk. You know yourself she is as smart as you and I.”
“Yeah. Smarter than me.” So now I knew. It didn’t make no matter. I just felt sorry for her, mule-kicked in the head, her whole family killed, no one wanting her. Life deals you a rotten hand sometimes.
“She cannot read or write.”
“That just about makes two of us, ma’am.”
“There is something else Yolanda told me, something you need to know.”
I looked at her.
“She says Marta, well, her family, was what they call nómadas, wanderers. They have no home; they are people of the road. They work in fields and do odd jobs.”
“Yes, ma’am?” I wasn’t following her.
“Yolanda says she is not like most Mexican girls. She is more of a fighter, defiant, knows the rough ways of the road, and has to be clever to survive. She is more…earthy.”
I chuckled. “I can see all that in her.” I understood too because I’d been raised rough.
“Bud.”
“Yes, ma’am?”
She fixed me with a stern gaze. “Marta is special. You could do worse in this life than take care of her.”
With a comfortably snoring Marta snuggled up to me, I thought on what Mrs. Moran had said about me being a gentleman. A cowboy gets needful urges. I pondered on that. I’d taken her under my wing because I knew ruffians would take what they wanted from her. Well, I swore I’d not be that way. This little gal had been through hell, lost everything. I wasn’t taking nothing else from her. It was the only decent thing to do. Besides, there was something else about her, something I couldn’t quite figure.
* * * *
One day Mrs. Moran said if I shot some quail and jackrabbits she’d pay me. It was a nice change from mucking out the stable twice a day. When I saddled after breakfast, Marta was right there. She climbed up on a nail keg, hoisting her saddle onto the sorrel. I said, “You get back inside.” I’d learned she could understand my meaning…when she saw fit. She crossed her arms and glared at me, tapping a sandal atop the keg. I could see there wasn’t no point in arguing.
All we had to do was walk through the grass outside town and plenty of them old mule-ear jacks and quail were scart up. It was easy shooting. Marta was toting a feedsack, and it was full in no time. She pointed at the shotgun and thumped her chest.
“You wanna shoot this thing?” The girl is sure full of surprises. “Well, hell, why not? I gotta see this, you getting knocked on your scrawny butt.”
Taking the gun she arched an eyebrow like she was saying, “Watch this.”
She loaded and cocked a hammer like she knew what she was doing, I guess from watching me. I’d noticed she’d watch real close when someone was doing something. She looked funny trying to heft that long-barreled cannon up.
“Well, fine. Now pull it hard into your shoulder ’cause it’s going to kick like a mule.” I shoved it hard into her showing what I meant. Then I thought that was ignorant to say since she don’t know what I said and she knew about a mule’s kick.
She nodded and tramped forward a-hunting. I stayed right behind her not wanting her to swing that cannon around all a sudden. A quail lit-out fifty feet away, and she blew that bird clean out of the air before it cleared the sage tops. And she was still standing.
“Well, I be thumped.”
She was mighty proud of what was left of that bird. She glanced at me out the corners of her eyes. She might as well have said, “Stuff that in your tobacco pouch.”
Then I remembered the shotshells where her family been murdered. Her pa must of had a shotgun.
Coming back I ran into a greasy-beard cowpuncher in front of the hotel and asked him if his outfit were hiring. He sounded funny because his lip was slit open up to his nose and never healed proper. “We ain’t hirin’ no hotel-chore boy nurse-maidin’ a Mex.”
Guess I’d not be working that spread. “Thank you, friend,” I said.
On Friday Mrs. Moran told me to put my spare duds on because Marta was going to wash clothes. On Saturday after the guests were done, Mrs. Moran said we could use the bath. I’d gone first, put on my clean duds, and was in the stable room repairing a hackamore. It was blowing cold-wind, and Marta came running in wearing one of those white Mex dresses with a towel wrapped around her head.
Sometime ago I was in a café in Beeville, and this lady had pictures on the wall of her ma and pa. They were black paper cutouts of their heads, what she called sil-lo-wets or something. Marta stepped through the door, and the sun hit highlighting her shape like one of those sil-lo-wets. She pulled that towel off and thick black hair fell over her shoulders and back. I ain’t even known she had that much hair, all wavy down to her hips. Damp-wet, it glistened like black oil. She saw me then. We sorta stared at each other for a spell—those eyes. Then she got all embarrassed-looking and brought that towel up over her hair. I was up and out of there, embarrassed my ownself and feeling queer. Had to feed the horses anyways. Lodged in my head was that sight in the door and all her hair. Pretty amazing.

* * * *

Being Saturday night and feeling peculiar, I moseyed down to the Blue Saloon, because I’d been told it was a bad place to go to. Something about Marta was troubling me. I’d think one thing and then something else. I was starting to like having her around, and that made no doggone sense.
There was a bunch of punchers and peelers at the bar—planks lying across whisky barrels—lanterns hung all around the walls. The dirt floor was covered with straw, and I asked the barkeep what for.
“It makes it easier to clean up with all the tobacco spit, puke, and blood,” he said, wiping down glasses dipped in a scummy bucket. Top of the water had kind of rainbow colors in it.
I said, “That makes sense.” Now that he’d mentioned it, the place smelled like all that.
I knew I dranked too much. I started with beer, but ended up on tequila. It was like belting down wet fire.
That greasy-beard, slit-lip punch from the other day asked what for I was letting a Mex gal tote a scattergun around. He talked big being backed by his pards. I recollect telling that bunch of boys this was the nosiest damn town I’d ever had the misfortune to pass through. They agreed that it was a good damn idea that I was passing through, and they hoped I’d continue my travels real soon.
The barkeep got me out of there without the help of Slit-Lip and his pards who were more than willing to toss me out. I went to the noisiest place I could hear, a Mex cantina down the muddy street.
Those Mex boys were real friendly and weren’t nosey. We drank beer, drawing bottles floating in a cold-water barrel, and they were singing up a storm. This one vato was prime on a guitar. There was a couple of Mex whores flirting with them boys, and this one started hanging around me when I started buying rounds. We had a grand time.
After a spell I was feeling pretty good and at the same time real down. It was all queer and confusing, and I don’t think it was because of the booze. Those Mexes, some could speak American, were slapping me on the back and saying, “Adiós amigo,” as I headed out. It was sure cold. I walked straight back to the Blue Saloon. I’ve done dumber things, just don’t recollect what.
I walked up behind Slit-Lip and them other punches hanging on the bar and bawled, “Y’all a bunch of damn nosey bastards and ain’t got no call telling me what for about that girl carrying a twice-barrel shootgun.”
Instead of being pummeled with fists, they all turned around and started shouting things like, “Greasy Mex lover,” “Get your ass and your Mex whore outta town,” and “Stick that dummy greaser bitch’s scattergun up your ass, boy.”
That’s when I threw a beer bottle at Slit-Lip, who was wild-eyed drunk. That’s when I got pummeled with fists. And dragged across the floor, thrown out the door, kicked about, and stomped into the mud and horse shit. I remember that mud was real cold. Slit-Lip pulled this foot-long skinning knife and came at me. I put my arms up, and he fell on me like a barrel of rancid salt beef. I don’t recollect no more.
I woke up with someone banging on pots. There wasn’t any straw on this dirt floor, but there was puke and blood, mostly mine I think. The banging was a fat turnkey with shaggy ginger-and-gray hair and tobacco-brown teeth a clanging on the cell bars with a ladle. He was saying, “Someone here to sees ya, dumbass.”
“What happened?” I asked. My mouth tasted like a wormy cow had shit in it, and I felt like the rest of the herd had stampeded over me. I was real cold and shivering like a leaf.
“Ya real lucky, ya dumb sumbitch.” The turnkey was standing there snarling down at me. “Deputy Wilcox conked that big punch on the head wit that grub-hoe handle he carries. Or you’d be in the Chinaman’s parlor with him having to stuff your innards back in.”
“Well, thank him for me when next you see him.” I heard moaning in the next cell and there layed Slit-Lip among the contents of a kicked over chamber pot.
“Y’all dumb as a keg of lard,” grumbled the turnkey, looking at me. “Anyways, someone here to sees ya.”
And there stood Marta with a big frown. I all a sudden had this powerful guilt feeling in my innards, the ones the Chinaman should be stuffing back in.
The turnkey said, “Mrs. Moran brunged her down to give ya some blankets. It’s powerful cold.” He scowled at me again. “Ya oughta be ’shamed yourself making that fine lady havta come down to the hoosegow on a night like this.”
Marta pushed two blankets through the bars and was worried looking. But she gave me a scowl and ran out. I guess she didn’t approve of the state I’d gotten myself into.
“Tell Mrs. Moran I thanks her from the bottom of my heart.” All that talking was hurting my head.
The turnkey only growled.
* * * *
The turnkey banging on the bars woke me. “Mrs. Moran here to co’lect y’all.”
The glaring morning sun slanting through the bared window made my head hurt more. I managed to make it to my feet once I’d crawled out of the cell.
“Y’all one damn lucky sumbitch, dumbass. That they brunged ya ’em blankets,” he added.
I didn’t say nothing. My teeth itched, and my tongue was asleep. The blankets were hanging over my shoulders. It was colder than a witch’s tit on the Texas Panhandle.
“That punch what tried to knife ya, he froze death las’ night. He ain’t had no blankets. A powerful bad blue norther blowed in.”
I was expecting an ass-chewing, although I don’t think a fine lady like Mrs. Moran would call it that. She was standing there wearing a long beaver-skin coat and a stone-cold look. Marta was there too wearing her corduroy coat and shawls, and her face matched Mrs. Moran’s.
In a stern tone Mrs. Moran said, “I expected better of you, Mr. Eugen. I trust you will work hard to redeem yourself.” I only nodded, but that hurt. Her wagon was on the street, and I took the reins for the four blocks back to the hotel. She didn’t say nothing more to me that day. Of course neither did Marta. It was the worst ass chewing I’d ever had.


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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 978-1-62916-018-4
Genre: Young Adult
Date Published: 12/05/2013
Publisher: Taliesin Publishing

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