Once upon a time, a big grey Tabby lived at the center of a world that cannot be imagined today. He patrolled the universe of death that was northern France and Belgium. In the spring of 1916, in a sector of the Belgian front called “Wipers. he patrolled No-mans land each night, crossing from one side to the other, showing no favoritism to either the Boches or the Tommies who had been very, very busy slaughtering each other for the last two years.
If you ask someone what had happened, they might give you a year or use an event to place the story in a particular time. Build a box for the story to reside in. This makes it history. History is not stories, it is fact in the sense that it provides a seemingly solid road marker on which to build time. Facts are used as if they are stories but it is a mistake to think the two are even remotely related. A story belongs to the teller and only the teller. He can stretch, revise and change it anyway he chooses. Every time he tells it it will be different. Just because it is written on paper does not make it true. The only truth belongs to the teller, no one else.
Let me tell you a story, a true story. Well, maybe mostly true; some of it anyway. You be the judge.
When I met Harold “Ruff” Schilling, he was an old, old man. Originally from down in Texas he said. Down on the Rio Grande near Redford. The Big Bend country, about as far from civilization as you could get in these United States in the early 19th century. His brown eyes were still clear though. He was whip thin in the lanky drawn out way that country people are and he spoke a little like Waylon Jennings sounded in his early days, like he was gargling gravel back in his craw. A tall thin man, he must have been a sight to see when he was young, riding horseback along the Arroyo de Iglesias rootin’ steers outta the scrub brush during the spring roundup. He said “He always had a hankering’ to git outta that country, too hot, too dry and too damn many Messicans.” At the time I was surprised by the implied racism but later I learned his mother came from Mexico and the population of Redford was almost entirely Mexican, in fact, he said that, “If you didn’t know which country you was from, you’d have a hard time tellin which a one you was in.”
He was living out his days at my in-laws rest home in California when I knew him. He would sit in his chair just to the left of the front door looking into the distance and seeing what no one else could, what no one else cared about. Any family he had left was down in Texas; he said “His son don’t give a damn for me, I been spectin’ him to come through that door for years but he ain’t done it yet, guess he never will.”
Staying there was a rough deal for a man that loved to talk. Like an old bull out to pasture, too old too breed and to tough to eat, he whiled away his days watching a little TV and waiting. We both knew for what.
It turns out he was with the railroad most of his life. Forty years he worked for the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific, starting out on the track gangs after the Great War and staying with it until 1961 when he retired as an engineer. He loved to tell of his life and if you could make time to sit with him it was lesson after lesson on how things once were.
“Redford, he said, was onct called El Polvo and it sure was, dusty as hell and then some.” He claimed it was the only place he ever lived where you could taste it before you saw it. Harold told me the little town was called El Polvo for about forty years until they put up the post office and were told they couldn’t have a foreign name so decided to call it Red Ford after the Spanish name, Vado Rojo, a location nearby where the Rio Grande met the Arroyo de Iglesias. “It was an old river crossin’ but the damn guvmit was the same then as it is now, they jus made it one word ‘cause they din know no better.” he joked, rolling his eyes upward.
Harold loved newspapers, said his only real education was reading them. “Went to school off and on for maybe three years but when I was about 13, the post office opened and we could get newspapers in the mail ‘stead of begging from the teamsters whose freight wagons brought what we needed down from the railhead up to Alpine.”
“Now, Redford wasn’t much, had an old square and mebbe four stores, a couple cantina’s, a few old adobe houses and some palapa’s for peoples to git under when it was a sizzlin’ hot.” Jeez, I hated that he opined, “Cookin’ in the summer freezing’ your tail off in the winter. If you was lookin’ to get outta Redford, that might jes be enuff for you to makeup your mind.” He went on to say, “Ya know, Southwest Texas is rough, hardly any dirt, everything is rocks, the plants have thorns and stickers and they’s hardly any flat ground. It’s bluffs and cliffs and you might wonder what in the hell anybody in they right mind would live there. I reckon I wondered that ever day I lived down there.” He paused a while, then he said, “Made us real damn tough tho, even my sisters, they rode as good as the men and could do a hard days work like we could. My sister Dulce, she married a rancher up to Fort Davis, give him a couple boys and when he was killed by a horse, why she raised them boys up, sent ‘em to college and ran that big old ranch just as good as him. See, we was tough kids.” Harold said, “Texas makes you hard or it kills you.”
He told me his sister Rosa Encarnacion run off with a young drover from New Mexico and when he left her there in Magdalena, why she just went up to Santa Fe and worked in a bawdy house for a couple a years. In about 1918 she married a big cattleman. “You know, people weren’t so particular back then as they is now about that sort of thing. They had a flock of kids, sent ‘em back east to school too, why one become a judge and one of the girls was a movie star after the second war. Families are interestin’ ain’t they? One thing though, there ain’t one of ‘em living in Redford.” Harold laughed a little, then said, “Sometime I kinda miss them simple days.”
“See, we lived in a one room “dobe house, older than the hills; in fact it was the hills, made out of them for a fact. Didn’t have no floor, had one door and three windows with no glass. It had three rooms, one in the center and another they had added later on. None of the “dobe was plastered and the oldest part was a meltin’ away. Ma kept the inside clean though, she used to git a bucket of water, take a mouthfull and then spray it on the dirt while sweepin,’ and that sucker was hard as a rock as clean an shiny as a lizards belly. My pap done made a table and we had four old store bought chairs, a couple held together with wire. Nights in the summer we’d haul ‘em outside under our palapa where ma hung the chilis and have our dinner. Ma could make almos’ anything outta cactus, Nopales, I loved that stuff and ma knew how to make it. She had a old wood stove she cooked on and that thing was a job all by itself. Had a reservoir on the side for boiling water and when I was little I musta made a thousand trips a year hauling’ water from the hand pump to the stove. It had three big ‘ol flat plates on the top for cook pots or makin’ tortillas and two holes in the front for bakin’ bread. No one was too happy with her in the summer, ‘dobe holds the heat real good and you’d be a bakin’ long with the bread. In the winter though we loved her cause she kept that little house nice and warm. Have to say she kept me busy when I was little though, haulin’ wood and water, could never seem to keep up.”
“Down there in south Texas we was a good as Mexican anyhow. We all lived together, worked together, married each other and could talk each others lingo. You could throw in some indian talk too. Guess you could say I could speak three languages, not many can do that anymore.”
He went on, “Eight of us lived in that old place, ma, pa and my five sisters They had me after the three older gals and then the twins when I was eight. They was no more comin’ causes pa told me ma cut him off after that. Mebbe thats why he drank a little too much. Or mebbe it was just the hard life. He ran our place and worked on the side for the big outfits to to keeps us all goin. I spect no one would live that kind of life today, but in a way we didn’t know no better. If you don’t have and your neighbors don’t have ,then you’s all the same, ain’t you? Nothin’ to compare your life too, so it don’t bother.”
“So in 1914, I got this friend, name of Sloat Temple, he lived with us, you see? He was a tall drink of water, red hair and a kinda long nose, made his upper lip stick out a little and when you looked him in the face the shadow of it allus made it seem like he had no teeth. His left eye had a little tilt on the side, didn’t quite line up, made him tilt his head a bit. He was a good boy but just a trifle. He stayed with us ‘cause my ma was that way, takin’ in strays, didn’ matter what kind. “Ma, she’d see you a-comin’ an’ put her hands on her hips and give a little tilt to her head, mebbe give that little squint she give if she’d thought you’d been doin’ sumpin’ wrong, but knowin’ you was a good boy anyhow. It was a mothers look, a grin full of mirth and automatic forgiveness. She never cared too much what you’d been doin,’ she just loved who you was now. She just naturally took in Sloat an’ made him a part of the family.”
Ya see, his pa got hisself shot dead down in Mexico. He had got this job in the mines, some kinda engineer workin’ for old George Hearst at the Barbicora ranch in Chihuahua and whilst he was travelin’ from Ojinaga to Tierra Blanca, the train was stopped by revolutionary troops under General Pascual Orozco. All the gringo’s and federal troops were taken off and the Federal troops immediately lined up and shot dead. Funny thing I heard, is that they didn’t tie ‘em or nothin’, they just stood there like a bunch a sheep and let ‘em do it, funny that. The Americans were accused of aiding the Mexican government and placed under arrest. President Wilson had stopped the sale of weapons to the revolutionary armies after rich American businessmen complained that their property in Mexico was being seized without anyone payin’ ‘em for it. I heard old Pascual was angry because they needed money from the American banks. They was selling stolen cattle they rustled from the big haciendas up to Texas and New Mexico and then usin’ the money to buy rifles and such in the United States. Wilson cut ‘em off an’ believe me, they wasn’t happy. A vaquero we knew who was down there when it happened tol’ us how they done it. They put Sloat’s father and the others back on the train and took ‘em down to Piedras Blancas and locked ‘em in an old ‘dobe store for a couple days. Orozco telegraphed old Hearst and told ‘em he shoot ‘em if’n he didn’t fork over some money to git ‘em off. We heard that after a couple days, they took ‘em out, started pushing and shovin’ them aroun finally pushing them down on they knees an’ tying up they hands behind their backs. Pascual himself came out and looked them over and said old man Hearst wouldn’t pay no money to get them out so they was goin’ to be shot. Said, “Did they have any messages for they families and such?” The vaquero said that Sloat’s pa to old Pascual that he and George Hearst could go an fuck ‘em selfs. “Bastardo,” said Orozco, walked over to him, pulled his revolver, put it on Temple’s forehead an’ shot him dead right there. He motioned to a captain, who walked behind the other three men and shot them in the back of the head. Just left ‘em lying in the dust in front of the store, Dirt in their open eyes, the blood running into the groun,’ the Vaquero said. He said “They stripped the bodies, took the watches and boots and anything else they could and rolled ‘em in a ditch. After a couple days they spread some lime on ‘em and buried right there.”
“When the revolution down in Mexico started, lots of the local vaqueros left to join Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco and our life just got tougher than a nut, cause we had to work even harder. My Pa was tryin’ to run his ranch with almost no help but me, Sloat and a couple little Mex boys. Pa had took us’n down cross the river and we’d snatch up a few hunnert head of cattle, run ‘em back cross the border, then drove ‘em up to Alpine where we’d sell ‘em to the cattle buyers. No ways it’s legal, but what ya gonna do? Rustlin’ only counts in the US don’t it?” Harold put his head down a little, paused for a while, gimme a little smile and said, “Hell.” Then he laughed til he shook. “Hell.”
“We seen them Dorados onct. Villa and his men were passing through headed to the railhead at Alpine to take delivery of rifles and artillery he’d bought from the American government. We was moving’ cows over west of Torneros Arroyo and they come up the road ridin’ from Ojinaga where the musta crossed the border. Reckon they come up from Chihuahua city. They was a ridin’ by fours, musta took up most of two miles. They coulda’ been five hunnert of em, believe you me. They was a rough a bunch of killers as I ever seed. They wore them big sombreros and the horses they rode were good lookin’ too, really good mounts, probably stole from the big hacendados down there in Mexico. They carried them carbinas .30-.30’s, a helluva rifle an easy for a horsemen to handle as they was short and light. Didn’ wear no uniforms neither, just whatever they fancied.Them big Mexican hats, each one carried at least a couple belts of catridges, ridin’ them big old Mex single rig saddles with the soup bowl horn and tapaderos. Villa come ridin’ up with his personal killer, Rodofo Fierro, called ‘im El Carcinero, it’s said he’d shoot you down and not turn a hair. In those days, Villas horse, Siete Leguas was ‘bout as famous as he was and they was both right in front of us. He give us a look and showed us his teeth as he went by. “Muchacho, Que tal? he said. He give us a nod and a wave and galloped up to the head of the line. Jesus, them was some bad lookin’ hombres, made the hairs on your neck stand up too. We give ‘em a lotta room. I was gonna see some nasty stuff later on, but I never seed any troops that scared me like those boys. Jesus, they was so hard they nearly made you piss your trousers, right there. To me they said, “nada me importa perder la vida,” (I care nothing about losing my life,) and they meant it. Villa sent them in against barbed wire and machine guns at Agua Prieta in 1915 and they musta been right about that ‘cause they did die, nearly every damned one. Rode right into those guns goin’ hell for leather hollerin’ and a yippin. Didn’ do ‘em a bit of good though, slaughtered ‘em and damn near ended Villa right there.
“They was sumpin’ about ‘em though, you could tell they figured they was good, chin up and all, plenty a swagger. Them Dorados was Villas personal troops, follered him ever where. Seemed like an adventure to me though, Villa and his Dorados was running rings around the government troops down in Chihuahua and Durango. My grandfather said he was just a cheap pistolero and Pancho Villa wasn’t even his real name anyways.” He ‘tol me “Used to buy cows from the real Pancho, he stole ‘em from the big hacendados and I bought ‘em on the cheap. This guy Arango will come to a bad end mijo, you can bet on it.” Turned out in the end what mi Abuelo was sayin’ was Verdad.” Harold said, “Thats what they done too, shot Villa to pieces about 1923.” That whole revolution din’ amount to much in the end, Millions dead and things just kinda went back to the way they’d allus been.” Harold said, “Hard to figure sometimes, ain’t it. All that waste weren’t for shit in the end, corrupt bastards still runnin’ ever thing in the end. Bad as ever.”
“Did see him though, talked to me too.” Harold smiled at that, “Not many can say they seen Pancho Villa anymore, can they? Helluva thing though.”
”President Wilson sent United States troops down our way to Chase Villa back into Mexico after he shot up Columbus New Mexico. When the army come in with Gen’l Pershing, they had these flyin’ machines up to Presidio and some cavalry at old Fort Polvo just down the road from us.” “Ma worked as a cook and the money was welcome ’cause there weren’t no jobs for any women cept’n whores in those days.” I started hangin’ around the soldiers when I had the time and they were tellin’ me things I never heard before and it was pretty excitin’ stuff for a young guy like me who’d never been anywhere before.” Harold said, “It really got me to thinking’ maybe I wanted to git outta Redford and see sumpin else, you know?” “Them Mexican sojers were a bangin’ away cross the boarder and them beans was a flying’ around all the time. Course our side was a shootin’ back ‘cept no one was gettin’ plugged but the occasional cow, but still, hit weren’t too healthy.”
“I guess I coulda gone down and joined up with Villa, plenty of white folks were doin’ that but I thought, Let them Messicans fight it out amongst theyselves. I weren’t Messican, even if my mother said she was, I expect she was more Mescalero anyway, since I think she come from that part of Texas.” Harold laughed.
“I thought about it for a long time, figurin’ what to do and where to go until I finally decided to light out for good. Me an Sloat figured we needed to dust trail outta there and see sumpin’, ya know? From the Sojers, I’d a heard about the big bust up in France and I reckoned I’d go over there and see the Elephant.” Harold said he knew from newspapers that President Wilson wouldn’t have nuthin’ to do with the war and If’n we wanted to go I’d have to go on up to Canada to enlist.
Now Harold was born while his pa was in Cuba with the Rough Riders. His pa had taken a ball through his cheek in the fight at Kettle Hill. He was pretty proud of that. He’d said “howdy” to the Colonel when he was in the hospital tent and the Colonel replied “You boys did a capital job with the Spaniards, yes sir, it was a Bully fight. Just Bully.” Pap wore that scar like it was a badge of honor, he allus said, “Hit was the best thing I ever done and I’d do agin ifn the Colonel ast me.”
He had lived his whole life so far in Redford. It was brown and dusty, scattered with rocks like chicken scratch thrown on the ground. Brown like his mothers skin, brown like his fathers hands, brown like all the people who lived there. “Nuthin’ for me now, nuthin’ ever gonna be for me,” he said, “I’d jus die here and they’d bura me under the brown earth. Nobody’d even know I’d ever been. Couldn’t see any sense in staying.”
He continued,”You know, I’d never been more’n 20 miles from home and that just a wranglin’ steers for the Cibolo Ranch, old Milton Favers place. Me’n Sloat talked it over and jus decided to git outta there. We snuck our things outta the ‘dobe, put ‘em in our possible sacks , waited ’til pa was gone for a couple a days and lit out. What I done was to take my ma’s money outtn the Hills Brothers coffee tin where she hid it, figured I’d pay her back some how, and we lit out for the railroad stop at Marfa on the Southern Pacific short line. Took a couple horse from pa, me n Sloat. Took the worst too, didn’ want to discomfort pa too much. Sloat forked the old Dun mare and I had that mossy hammer head gelding my pa stole down in Mexico, he weren’t pretty, and he weren’t worth a damn with a steer but he could put in some miles if ya gave him his head.
Made the ride in three days, Tied the horses at the depot, told the agent whose they was and would he try to send a message back to my folks where the horses was and caught the train east. I ain’t never been back.”
He thought a bit, then said, “Life out there wasn’t no picnic, but it had its good, My Pa died in about ’34, life had wored him out. He worked so hard, ever damn day, each the same as ta other an’ he hardly ever talked, just said what he needed to say and the rest of the time kept pretty quiet. Ma lived until she was nearly ninety, a miracle I reckon ‘cause she lived such a hard life but she was strong like those Injun women are. She raised up her kids as best she could and we all turned out alright didn’t we? Without any change of expression, he said, ”All this time and I can still smell her.”
The old man sat very still for a while, remembering, I suppose, then without any change in expression, the tears began rolling down his cheeks. He didn’t wipe them, just let them roll down until they fell on his shirt front.