Luke bumped the mare's ribs with his boot and made a smooching sound with his lips. Seldom ridden and hardly ever worked, she snorted with surprise and broke into a ragged trot. Luke wore jeans and an old fatigue shirt with captain's bars embroidered on the collars. Untrimmed since he got back to the States, his hair was becoming something of a statement among his kin. Trying to break the rust off and ease a fret of nerves, he kicked the horse again, a little harder this time, to get her into a lope; for both their sakes, he let her take it slow.
He had given $800 for her at an auction in Kerrville the year he came home for Pop’s funeral. She was a near-white gray. The dapples paled and faded as her winter coat shed and the days warmed up; points of red began to appear, about half an inch apart, on surfaces that caught the straightest sun. So he named her Freckles. She had a nice rhythm to her lope, though today he had to yank her head up. She wanted the bit in her teeth and kept plunging her neck, trying to seize it. Her mouth was tender, out of practice with the steel.
The Burgoas had three thousand acres, a thousand head of mohair goats, four hundred sheep, a hundred cattle, and a seat on the consolidated school board — hard-working Mexicans, in the eyes of their neighbors. The sun had reached the gargoyles of cactus that lined the canyon rim, but a gasoline engine still popped and sputtered inside the barn. Luke's brother Simon, the school trustee, had been shearing goats since daybreak. Assisted by a high school kid who kept the lines untangled and handed him the shears, Simon could take one down with a flip of its hind foot, pin it with a boot in the throat, and have its wool off in ninety seconds. Goats are not stoic creatures. Under the heel their eyes bulge, their long tongues spill in the dirt. Luke heard one losing its dignity now. The sound made his face itch. He wasn't expected to help with the shearing anymore, and he wasn't about to offer. Rooted mohair is an oily, caustic slum of fleas, lice, and microscopic vermin. Luke retired from shearing crew the year in college that he grew a beard.
When Pop died the ranch had passed entire to Simon. Luke was party to an inheritance law that was short on sentiment and long on continuity: all to him who will preserve it. In the minds of Navarrese landholders, broken estates led to empty stomachs, and in Texas their thinking kept the cul-de-sacs and Century 21 signs away. On the other hand, the law did not alter the frequency of warm moist bumpings in the night. It made of Luke the segundón, younger son. He was in good company: Ignatius of Loyola and Simón Bolívar, for whom his brother was named. Luke could live with his inheritance. He got his share in cash. The problem was the expression. It couldn't help but carry a certain taint. Luke was two years older than the goat shearer in the barn. But Pop had known his sons well.
Luke and his mare burst from shadow to sun in a creek bottom pasture, scattering sheep that had gone through the barn earlier in the day. The shorn animals looked bewildered and raped in their sudden nudity. They looked like new arrivals in a concentration camp. Some were bright pink with sunburn. He thumped the horse's ribs a third time and smooched to her again. His focus narrowed on the tossing mane and long wedge of spotted neck; colors blurred, objects blended. They came up through a corridor of mustang grape foliage. Wary of holes and branches, he kept her on the trail cut by swaths of pickup tires. The rum cherry woods were columns of blue shade and dusty gold light.
On the pasture's higher shelf, unshorn Angoras, Angus cattle, and short-haired Spanish goats raised their chins and stared. Leaving the road, Luke aimed the mare's head in their direction. Throat bells began to ring. As the horse came among them, sheep bleated and ran into each other, and the goats bounded like gazelles. The cattle grunted and lurched away. A large white dog rose from the grass and padded forward with a warning frown.
The dogs were Luke's only contribution to the operation of the ranch. Like their father, Simon had fought coyotes with bullets, cyanide, and traps, a losing effort with all. In some Johnny Appleseed farm and ranch journal, Luke read about the Great Pyrenees — guard dogs bred against predations of wolves and eagles in the old country. Luke bought the first pair of pups and shipped them home by crate; they almost died unclaimed on a sweltering freight dock. Now Simon conducted seminars on their use for the state agriculture department. As soon as new pups were weaned, he penned them with sheep or goats, whose protection needs differed. He gelded them and built little feed corrals for them all over the ranch. They lived with their adopted stock, identities happily confused.
Great Pyrenees had few battles with coyotes, which they outweighed by eighty pounds or so, but this one was irked by the intrusion of a running horse. The dog wheeled on its hind legs and galloped, barking, alongside. Fleeing goats stayed close together. Luke grinned and drove the mare through them like the prow of a boat. Freckles missed a step and staggered. Luke braked himself with the right stirrup and viewed the sundown through the neighbor's trees. Some days, he envied his brother. The mare plunged her neck to the left, making another grab at the bit. Caught leaning the wrong way, Luke left the saddle. He almost admired his headlong flight.
He landed on his shoulder. That was easy, a thought began to form, but then his cheekbone hit the ground. It had no give at all.
When he finally sat up, he was surprised to find the reins still in his hand. The mare pointed her nose at him, and then drew back. She looked genuinely concerned. His neck was numb, and the side of his face felt hot as flame. Another skull came into the picture. A low grumbling came from the canine throat.
Simon’s children were urged to stay away from the Great Pyrenees. Luke extended his arm and offered the dog the back of his hand. It ignored the gesture. Behind the broad lowered head, the long tail swung back and forth. Goats began to gather. One perched on a rock the size of a medicine ball. Another took a seat, licked its genitals, and began to scratch its ear with a hind foot. Goats, he thought, are the only hooved animals that do that.
“They think they're dogs,” he said. The Great Pyrenee ceased growling and sank into the posture of a sphinx. After a while it yawned. It shifted its weight to elbow and ribs. The eyes narrowed. It began to pant.
“Caballero,” someone called in Spanish. “Are you hurt?”
After this came laughter.
He picked them out in the darkening line of trees. Two were older and pot-bellied mestizos, their work clothes threadbare and soiled. The fence-builders started up the slope toward him, followed by a boy with stony tribal features. He walked with his wrists draped across a wire-stretching tool called a come-along that he braced behind his neck and shoulders. He wore an odd brimless hat that was dyed indigo blue. He swung his shoulders and turned his head, watching a buzzard make a skidding low pass. The boy's hat was a coonskin cap.
He raised an arm and waved them off. “Thanks for your concern,” he answered. “Now go back to work.”
“We've done all we can today,” said the oldest one. “It gets too dark to see.”
“Then go get something to eat.”
“Cabrito and mutton,” laughed the other. “Your brother is generous. But the flavors cling to our tongues.”
“Tonight we're going to town,” said the elder. “In the back of your brother's helper's truck. There's a dance.”
“Where are you from?” Luke asked.
“Guanajuato,” the elder replied.
Christ, that was eight hundred miles. The workers kept a nervous distance from the big dog. Luke raised his voice above the bells and nags of the goats, who had lost interest and begun to wander. “Where did you cross?”
“Piedras Negras,” said the elder. “And then seven more days through a midget's forest of thorns. Then there was no work. I have done it five times in my life. The boy is a boy. He may never do it again. Your brother met us under a bridge in San Antonio. He brought us here.”
“Your feet owe him favors. And the boy tonight with the truck.”
“Pay us more,” said the second one. “We'll be grateful.”
“Forgive the mouth of my friend,” hastened the elder. “He thinks he's a tremendous joker.”
“Why would I pay you?” Luke said. “You're not doing anything for me.”
He got to his feet, gripped the saddle horn, and remounted the horse. Reining around them, he said, “Lots of folks in this country arrange it with the imigración so they don't have to pay you at all. They work you hard until the job they want done is finished. The day before payday, they have you arrested. I’m not talking about my brother. But you need to be careful.”
“I know the practice,” said the elder one. “It happened to me at a place called Three Rivers, my third time up. I have never since been fond of that numeral. Retribution is hard. It's too far to walk.”
“And there’s some meaner people than that who are out to get you.”
“The average number of sons of bitches,” his friend reflected, “is just about the same wherever you go.”
“The boy,” Luke said. “Does he ever talk?”
“To us, of course. To others, with great reluctance.” The Mexican shrugged. “A poor Indian.”
“Tell him to get rid of that hat. They're not worn here. He's going to get you caught.”
A room on the ranch house's second floor was always reserved for Luke. Surrounded by duffel bags, piles of clothes, his stock saddle, two pack saddles, stiff new coils of lariat, stacks of mohair blankets, surcingles, latigos — all manner of tack — he stood on the bed in search of a plan.
Remembered, with ambiguous inflection, as “the Adventurer,” Luke's grandfather had stopped to roll a smoke in the sights of a fascist sniper during the siege of Bilbao in the Spanish civil war; his beret came home in the mail dotted with flecks of his brain. Or so it was always said. By right of the old parents, guraso zurak, his widow had thus lived alone for sixty years in a ranch house built by a man known to her as a Scotch-Irish pirate. Abuela admired the hardwood floors in this house. These were familiar. She oiled them until they were black. She enjoyed the bedroom porches and rooftop belvedere; she liked to sit out on warm nights with her caged canaries. But her accommodation went no farther. Within the fences she hardly ever said a word of English, not even on the phone. Often she would add, “Today I don't feel like speaking Spanish.”
“All right, Abuela, don't,” her family members would reply. And off she'd go in her litany of tx's pronounced ch, trilling her rr's with the solemnity of a graveyard drummer. She believed it was spoken in the Garden of Eden.
Out in the hall, Luke heard the slow stamp of her cane. He was awed by this woman who was nearing a hundred but could still climb two flights of stairs and remember where she had set out to go. He stepped off the bed to greet her. She wore a flannel gown and a black cardigan that hung to her knees. Age had taken the handsome wedge of face in her pictures and honed it to an axe. She weighed about ninety pounds. Her cataracts looked like wool.
“What are you doing?” she reproved him. “Testing the manufacture of our bedsprings? Are you a little boy? Luken, I can hear.”
“I'm working, Abuela,” he said in English. “Taking stock. Pricing inventory. Be careful. The room's a wreck.”
“You taunt me with that language,” she grumbled. “Knowing it sounds to my ears like the boots of marching Germans. Your disrespect astounds me. Your Christian name is Luken. A physician, an artist, a saint who wrote Acts and the loveliest of the gospels. What is this ‘Luke’?”
“It's the world we live in now, Abuela,” he said softly.
As the two brothers had shared it with Pop, Simon and his family now occupied the old bunkhouse. Abuela poked the stack of saddle pads. “Sit down, Luken. I want to talk about your father's decision.”
“There's nothing to say. I love this place, but I don't want to work it. Never did.”
“I couldn't blame you,” she said. “This is marginal land, much abused. Hot and cold, but rarely enough rain. Much like Álava, in the old country.”
Luke smiled. She had never set foot in Álava or any other province of Spain. “All my life,” she went on, “I have been marooned. Your grandfather. He didn't have to go over there and get himself killed. You know our region of the old country chose the side of Franco. We were told the republicans were two-thirds communists, and haters of God. They murdered and mutilated priests and turned churches into butcher shops. He wasn't sure at all where his sympathies would fall. But not to have gone would have broken his heart. Even then, in my resentment and sorrow, there were your father and his brothers and sisters and all the babies they have brought crawling on my floor. Gure etxekoak, those of our house. But all my life I have been a refugee.”
Here we go. He moved his lips in concert with hers.
“When I think of the Burgoas and the Larrañagas. That they could have roamed the world on both sides of the equator and yet come from the same valley of the Río Salazar. Your grandfather's grandfather emigrated to Cuba in the circumstance of yourself. Segundón. Disinherited, a cutter of sugar cane. Yet still a noble with full rights under Spanish law. Because the villagers in that valley had once supported a certain king, and the Burgoas and Larrañagas had lived on the same land in the valley for more than one hundred years. Your grandfather's side of the family achieved a sisal and sugar plantation in Cuba. They built a grand home with a view of the ocean and laid the royal seal in marble tile just inside the door, where it would be walked upon like a doormat. Utter contempt. They never thought of themselves as Spaniards. They were Basques!
“In Cuba there was a premature revolt against the Crown,” she continued. “Many of the troops sent by Madrid were Basque mercenaries. Among their hosts was your grandfather's family. But our people indulge the politics, wherever they go. It became known to the Spanish authorities that the Burgoas were giving money to the Cuban rebels. Warned by the mercenaries, they left the island in the dark of night. They lost everything. They started over in the north of Mexico, which had already won its freedom from Spain, and achieved a second fortune. First in cattle, then as partners in meat-packing and tannery ventures.”
“Too bad,” Luke joked. “I always liked the Cuban angle. We could have gone up in the mountains with Fidel.”
Her cane hit the floor. “Hear me out, Luken. Amuse me. Do you have something urgent to do?”
He stared out the window at Simon's house. Goat bells tinkled. “Sorry.”
“The migrations of my family, the Larrañagas, were not so eventful. They just made money. The first of them arrived in Buenos Aires in the 1830s. It was just after the death of Simón Bolívar, the greatest Basque of all. The Spaniards were gone; a whole continent of opportunity lay before them. Ranchers in the Argentine were not exceptional; they overgrazed the unthinkable prairies, as cattlemen always do. Waves of Basque sheepherders arrived in due course. But my family achieved its wealth by the sea, in the city. For two generations, they worked in the meat-salting plants. The work was hard and seasonal, but the wages were good. When the plants shut down, some would go off in the pampas and build barbed wire fences. But my grandfather was the visionary Larrañaga. He saw that the future was in frozen meat. And in holds of ships, he figured out how to do it. The export company still exists.
“My father died believing his move to the north of Mexico was a terrible mistake, but how could he have known? Mexico was a change of scene, a reverse of the seasons, different stars at night. Poor Papa. He was a Basque exception. A younger son with money.”
Yes, thought Luke. Money and blood. Spaniards when we chose to be. No truck here with searing eyes and the dark hand raised from a shelter of cardboard in Nuevo Laredo. No stain of indios in our exceptional veins.
“They used to speak of the year of Haley's comet,” she went on. “Peasants moaned and clung to their rosaries, but it was the most elegant thing they had ever seen. The tail of a horse aflame, all across the sky. They lived then on a cattle ranch that was sixty kilometers across. Their house had seventeen rooms. That year, the tyrant in Mexico City was forced to flee the country. The Burgoas and the Larrañagas were on the side of the revolutionary Madero. Free elections. But his assassins gouged out his eyes and juggled them like eggs. We should have left Mexico then and gone back to the old country. The revolution passed into the hands of hooligans. Pancho Villa. Comandante of the ‘Golden Ones.’”
She quivered with outrage. “He was a butcher of stolen beef. A rapist. A bully with a smirk. When thieves become revolutionaries, they make the practice of stealing the principle of confiscation. The day he rode into our compound, he rounded up our family’s blooded white horses and shot each of them, one by one, before our eyes.”
Luke picked up a spur and spun the rowel. “So what are you pining for, Abuela? The state of Coahuila? Nothing like that's happened to you in this country.”
“No. But here we're isolated. Here we're reduced. We're looked upon with scorn. Here I've witnessed my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren forgetting who we are. To a nation of vagabonds, language is everything. Language is memory. Language is the bond. Since our ancestors came out of the caves, what have we called ourselves? Euskaldunak, speakers of Basque. Here I've heard the death of our language in my own family. This country has swallowed and digested us, Luken. We're Jonah in the stomach of a whale.”
He thumped the rowel again and listened to it ring.
“It happened for good in your generation,” she said. “Your father married late. He was lonely. The woman he chose was filled with spite. She strangled the language in my loved ones' throats. If I had another lifetime, I couldn't forgive her.”
“That's not how it happened, Abuela,” he said sharply. “Pop didn't sing us any lullabyes in Basque. He ran from this place until I was nine years old. And after we came here, the first time I wrecked a horse he sent me off to military school. How was I going to learn to speak it? Mama's language was English. She hadn't lived outside the city limits a day in her life. Every night, she'd come over here to dinner because you required it, and listen to you and him shut her out. She didn't understand a word of it. No wonder she left him.”
The old woman's hands clenched the cane. “You're the favored son, Luken,” she said. “You always were. Your father did you a favor by willing the ranch to Simon. There's a superstition among our people. ‘The moment you buy land, it's finished. If you consent to own property, you will never see the old country. Not with your own eyes.’” She tapped her forehead and laughed without humor.
He sat on the bed beside her. “It's not just language, Abuela. Let me tell you a story. The army gave me every opportunity; they commissioned me, sent me to language schools. I was trained in intelligence. But I wasn't cut out for it. I was insubordinate in small ways that drove them crazy. I came very close to being court-martialed. That's why I'm here today.”
“You were a mercenary,” she explained.
He gave her an amused look. “Between assignments, I was constantly in training. Toward the end, these got more and more correctional. In California they decided I needed cold-weather training. They sent me to a government reserve in the Sierra Nevadas. For two weeks we were badgered by sergeants. Nothing to eat but canned rations. They didn't give us enough bedding and clothing. I got frostbite on two of my toes.
“All the land out there is owned by the federal government. At the end, we were taken way back in the forest and turned loose. They gave us a map, a compass, and water, but searched us to make sure we had no food. We had to forage whatever we could. This colonel told us we had two days to reach a base camp in the desert. If we didn't, or if their patrols caught us, we had to stay another week. It was thirty miles. And the colonel said, ‘Stay away from the sheepherders. This is government land leased for grazing by the people they work for. They’re Basques. They don't speak English. If they make it three years, they can apply for a resident visa. They stay out here until they're crazy. There's an expression for it. People say they're sheeped. They won't bother you, but they don't like you. They shoot coyotes, and they might shoot you.’”
Abuela smiled and perked up.
“It took us all the first day to get down off the mountain,” Luke went on. “We couldn't see the foot of it. When we came out of the trees, it was solid sagebrush and sheep. Dogs were keeping four flocks of them separate. Burros and mules were set out to graze in hobbles. Wagons covered with white tarps were parked in a dry riverbed. We could see the herders; they were sitting around a big fire. It was fifteen degrees, and getting close to dark. I thought about it for a minute, and then walked down the hill with my hands in the air, screaming. ‘Paisanos! No hablo vascuence, euskera. Pero — PERO! — yo soy vasco!’”
“Yours could be a voice from purgatory,” she said, beaming. “They might have been French Basques.”
“That's right. But they were Navarrese who believed in apparitions. I ranted and raved about Cuba and the Argentine. They lowered their rifles. I cursed the bones of Pancho Villa. I longed for the breathtaking beauty of the Río Salazar. By the time I reached the riverbed, they were on their feet, cheering. I told them about my compañeros; they waved them on down. They slaughtered a lamb for us, Abuela, and roasted it on a pit. They passed around goatskins filled with cold red wine. We got stinking drunk and spoke all manner of languages. I understood them all. We taught them to sing ‘God Bless America.’”
“Stop. You have no shame.”
“No, let me finish. In return a young herder taught us ‘We Are Basque Soldiers.’” Luke flung his arms and sang, “Eusko gudariak gara Euskadi azkatzeko ...” which set off loud barking in Simon's yard.
“Next thing we knew, they were throwing punches and falling through the fire over the politics of it. But the young one persisted. He acted out a drama. We passed the wine and sang his song in honor and memory of the last prisoner executed by Franco. He was a boy from the south of Spain who changed his name and chose to be a Basque, Abuela. The lad needed money to pay for his dynamite and ammunition, and he got caught trying to rob a bank in Barcelona. A military court sent him to the firing squad for killing two Guardia Civil. Franco was on his deathbed. Our hero refused a blindfold, of course. He raised a fist to his dear mother, who was in the compound, and started singing. ‘Eusko gudariak gara ...mm’ The bullets knocked him down but didn't kill him at once. He raised his head, the shepherd swore, and sang it till he died.”
She issued a long, flattered sigh. “Take me down to dinner, Luken.”
He took her arm and said, “I'd love to.”
The flooring creaked as they moved slowly down the hall and stairs. “I'm finished being mad at you,” she said.
“Good. It took a while.”
“You can always charm me, Luken. No one else bothers to try. But charm can be a crutch and barricade. There's an expression in our language, mutil zarra, old boy. It means a man who stays unmarried too long. I fear it applies to you.”