The day before the wedding, a visitor arrived at Vista Verde an entire week early. Renaldo, ready to wash up and eat dinner after a long, hard day–his side ached from roping cattle as a part of Paloma’s training, his hands were full of bits of raw hemp from the stock lassos, and one of the calves had kicked him high on the thigh–walked back from the barn using his hat to slap at the dust on his chest and thighs. He noticed a tall, striking young black man standing at the door to their home speaking with their father. They didn’t see many black men this far from civilization; with the Civil War ending so recently, many were staying close to where they’d been forced to live, were heading far out west where there were more opportunities to make a new life or were going north seeking less hostile society. Who he could be?
He was about as tall as Renaldo, maybe an inch or two more, broad-shouldered and whip-thin, dressed in well-worn, simple clothes. He had a close-cropped beard, but instead of hiding the shape of his jaw, it accented its sharpness. His light eyes, almost luminescent even at this distance and glowing like amber, were ringed with thick lashes, nearly to the point of being girlish, but there was nothing feminine about the man. With his lean but strong-looking chest, muscular arms and curved backside, he managed to carry himself with a confident air while standing idly; his body was still, but in a way that made Renaldo think of a raptor sitting on an abutment, watching and waiting.
“Oh, here he is,” Esteban said, motioning for Renaldo to join them, saying, “Señor Burnett, allow me to introduce to you my son, Renaldo.”
This? This was the legendary mesteñero, Henry Burnett?
~From Bitter Springs
Yeah, Renaldo. Not all legends are old men. Henry Burnett was not an easy man to get to know, not for me, and certainly not for Renaldo. I had to unlearn a lot of false history to allow his creation to happen, first off. The sheer lack of information readily available about black cowboys in the 19th Century is staggering.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll keep mentioning it as it’s important: about 40% of all cowboys were black. The rest were mostly Mexican and Native American, with a small number of whites mixed in.
The work was gruelling. Grunt work, really. Most of your time was spent keeping up the rear of a giant herd breathing in everything they kicked up along the way. There were opportunities for advancement, though. Hey, you ride behind 1500 longhorn for six months, moving to the side is a hell of a promotion.
And then there were men like Hank, mesteñeros, or mustang-catchers. There was no better horse for the work of long, hard, hot rides over the prairie than the horses who had been naturalized for centuries on that same prairie, the mustang.
(And there are no greater horse people than the Apache and Comanche, hands down.)
Men like Hank were the original horse-whisperers, men who could find these roaming wild herds of animals and seemingly talk them into coming back to “civilization” with them. One such man, Bob Lemmons, a freed black man living in Texas, had the legend follow him of being able to “have a private conversation” with a horse through eye contact, and the horses “just followed him back” without him having to lift a finger.
The typical way of catching wild horses was to rope them and drag them off, trap them and drag them off, or wear them down by chasing them and drag them off. Men like Bob Lemmons never had to resort to such tactics, hence the legendary status. (And when someone was cruel to animals, it served as a sign they were an uneducated novice with little respect for the animal or the job.)
For Hank, I imagined that a man who had grown up as a slave in the American southwest, essentially held captive, a man from that background wouldn’t like the idea of doing that to anyone else, be it a two or four-legged friend. But he would know that the life he could provide a horse would be much more secure than out in the wild, and maybe he’d make those horses an offer, see what they thought about it.
“[Paloma] wasn’t sure about most people,” Renaldo said to Burnett, smiling at the memory, “but she was about me.”
Burnett looked back at the house, took a deep drag from his cigarette, nodded and stubbed it out.
“That’s good. I prefer ’em liking me right off, too, but sometimes you have to gentle them into believing they can trust you. If you have to force ’em, they’ll fight you the whole way. You’ll never be any good together.”
It was vital that Hank be someone very cognizant of the cruelty others can inflict on each other and want no part of it. We modern folks have this idea of a stoic, emotionless man, grizzled and life-worn sitting on his horse as the sun sets, always alone, always searching. But history has all of these accounts of these cowboys in reality throwing their arms around their horses when they’ve had to put them down, crying their eyes out.*
I always wonder what made us decide as a society to stop men from being able to express their emotions, why that was seen as a weakness. It doesn’t get more iconic of what’s “masculine” than the American Cowboy, and story after story has these men happily sharing space, arms over each other’s shoulders, stories of “mutual solace” as a healthy expression of normal biological needs, and let’s not forget their adoration for their horses.
I guess you can tell which one I prefer.
Hank is a man who has consistently been denied a family, a home, and a place to call his own, but what he’s managed to do is make a name for himself. He commands people’s respect (which is why he gets a little peeved with Renaldo when they first meet, seeing as Renaldo is expecting someone closer to his own father’s age) and earns it from the horses he seeks. And hell, the man speaks about five languages. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
(Fun fact: I purposely have Hank as the most cultured character in the entire book, even though the Valle Santos family is well-educated. Hank has simply seen more of the world, and I’m a big fan of polyglots.)
Hank is my way of honoring those lost men who truly helped found the Wild West but so rarely get credit for having done so.
And gosh, I sure hope you like him. And if not, I can take comfort in knowing Renaldo does. 😉
*Black Cowboys of Texas, Sarah R. Massey