Most of my paternal family are a mix of ranchers, farmers and a coal miner or two, and they’re not known for running off at the mouth. I think there’s a type of man who delights in using as few words as possible. And as much as I love loud, take-no-prisoner type women, I also love a still-waters-run-deep sort of fella.

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Sweet Abuelita, an illustration in the book.

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Henry “Hank” Burnett, from the book cover


 

In my second novel, Bitter Springs, an historical Western set in Del Rio, Texas in the 1870s, I had a lot of fun with Henry “Hank” Burnett, the freed slave turned mesteñeros, stepping in as the quintessential cowboy. (And for more on how he absolutely was the quintessential cowboy–most likely not straight nor white–click here.) In the following excerpts, Renaldo is a young, coming of age horse-trainer (21) the baby of a boisterous, loving Texican family. He’s made a faux pas and… well, maybe it’s best you read it. (And get a glass of water, ’cause brother, Hank is dry.)

 
 
 
 
 

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,” Estebán 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? He couldn’t be much older than Renaldo, who realized his jaw had dropped. He closed his mouth quickly and moved toward them as if drawn like metal shavings to a magnet.

Burnett, however, looked amused, as the edge of his mouth quirked up. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, his voice deep and husky.

Renaldo couldn’t look away, shocked that his expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a vibrant young man. But… this was the man he would be alone with on the prairie for months? His stomach twisted at that thought, and at how unexpected it all was.

Mijo,” his father said sharply.

Renaldo shook himself slightly, and then nodded, saying, “Señor Burnett, it’s very good to meet you, finally. Please forgive my shock, as I don’t believe we expected you so soon.”

Burnett laughed, a rolling, melodious sound, and replied, “Well, then just imagine my shock when I come here all the way from Nacogdoches expecting one Valle man, only to find him gone and you in his place.” He smiled. “Your padre seems to think you’re a better match, so that works for me.”

“Pardon my asking,” Renaldo said, squaring his shoulders. “But you don’t seem old enough to be worthy of the legends my father has told me.”

“Renaldo!” his father said. “Señor,” he pleaded to Burnett, “please forgive him. It has been a trying stretch of time here—”

“No need,” Burnett said, smiling, yet not as easily as before. “Your son here ain’t the first to question me, ain’t gonna be the last.”

“I am not questioning you,” Estebán emphasized. “I am well aware of your talents and hope you can pass on your gift in any capacity to my son.”

“Well, I’ll sure try,” Burnett said, sizing Renaldo up. He huffed an amused noise, and then asked, “Señor Valle, is there a place where I could wash up?”

 

Renaldo also spoke a little too blasé about family when he didn’t know anything about Hank’s, further cementing Hank’s not-so-favorable impression. Then there were the first days out on the Llano Estacado with Hank’s horses Lady and Cloud, and Renaldo’s mares, Abuelita and Paloma. When the horses are brighter company…

 

After almost another full day of complete silence on the trail, Renaldo decided he might go insane if they never spoke beyond giving one another instructions, or Burnett pointing out what he considered landmarks along the dusty trail, but which seemed to be no more than piles of scree or unremarkable dry riverbeds to Renaldo. He thought back to how much friendlier Burnett had been when they’d first met and wondered what he’d done to cause such a rift between them.

Was the man that unforgiving of a slip of the tongue? Or… he realized with a sickening feeling, had he touched on a subject far too sensitive for someone of such short acquaintance, given how little he knew of Burnett? Renaldo was determined to repair the damage.

“Did you train Lady and Cloud yourself?” he asked, riding alongside Burnett.

“Mmm-hmm,” Burnett replied, looking ahead.

Renaldo sighed. Paloma tried to edge in front of Lady where she was being ponied on Burnett’s right until Renaldo pulled gently on the reins to make her stop and behave. Apparently he wasn’t the only one trying to gain Burnett’s favor.

“Have you had them long?” he asked, determined to have an actual conversation.

“I’ve had Lady ‘bout three years, found Cloud early summer up near Kansas.”

“Bought?” Renaldo asked.

Burne shot Renaldo a dry look. “Found. She’d gotten separated from her herd; been on her own and getting panicked from the looks of it by the time I came around. I was out scouting. Me and Lady made her acquaintance, and I guess she thought we’d make a good family. Been working with her since, oh, mid-June I think it was.”

Renaldo gasped. It was the first week of September. “You… this June?”

Burne sucked his teeth, still keeping his gaze locked on the distance ahead of them. “Well, I guess that means the stories your padre told you about me just might be true after all, then, huh? How ‘bout that,” he muttered to himself, a pleased grin on his face.

Dumbfounded, Renaldo bounced along in the saddle as Paloma plodded along. That a wild horse could be so well behaved—saddle-broke and trained on a bit—in a few months was absolutely unheard of in his world. “That cannot be,” he muttered.

“You calling me a liar?” Burnett said, his voice even, cold and on guard, his gaze piercing.

“No, no. Not at all. I’m just shocked. It took me months just to get Paloma to wear a saddle for more than a few moments.”

Burnett chuckled. “I wonder if that’s why your Pa thought you might could learn a thing or two.”

“I don’t know how it can be done,” Renaldo said, his index finger firm on Paloma’s reins as he directed her away from where she continued to butt in front of Lady. “It’s just a shock to me, that’s all.”

“Well,” Burnett sighed, “You not knowing how it could be done is why we’re here together, I suspect.” He turned to flash his teeth at Renaldo before settling back comfortably. After a moment, he said with a voice a bit softer, less biting, “It’s a shock to most folks, truth be told. I do know that. And I guess that’s why I keep getting work, if not for what I can do, but for folks to see if I live up to legend. Get their proof.”

Renaldo’s face went hot; he was glad Burnett wasn’t looking at him. After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, “I want you to know that I consider it an honor to learn from you, señor.”

“Well,” Burnett said. “That’s if you can learn, of course. We’ll find out, though, won’t we?” He clucked his tongue, encouraging Cloud to pick up her pace, forcing Paloma out of the way of Lady before the horses became entangled.

“Stop trying to make him like you,” Renaldo whispered in Paloma’s ear. For a second, he thought he heard Burnett chuckle.

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Paloma’s inspiration. Look at this gorgeous mustang! She’s fearsome purdy.

 

And by all means, my most favorite exchange in the whole book comes next. Remember, Renaldo has really thought highly of himself and his horsemanship (and with some good reason. But he’s farm-league good. These other guys are the Big Show.) He’s bragged about how well he’s done so far in his career as a horseman because he “grew up with them,” you see. After months on the prairie, they’ve met up with Hank’s friend, a Mescalero Apache (who has been laying a trail for Hank all along, unbeknownst to Renaldo) and the herd of wild mustangs they’ve been after this whole time.

Mescalero Apache Rick Mora

Mescalero Apache actor and model, Rick Mora, who served as inspiration for Tsa-Cho

 

Tsa-cho took a running leap, landed on a pretty paint’s back, grabbed her mane with both hands and gave a series of high yips. The horse reared back on her legs, higher and higher until Renaldo was sure both horse and rider would flip over, hurting, if not killing, both of them, and still Tsa-cho kept his seat, his forearms taut, his thighs clinging to the mare’s sides, straining to hold on, a wild and fierce look of determination on his face.

The horse fell forward, bucking and kicking, with Tsá-cho remaining firmly seated, his body supple and strong, moving fluidly with the great muscles in the horse’s back and neck, his hands buried in her mane to help maintain his balance. Renaldo watched as Tsa-cho dipped forward and to the side as the mare stretched out her neck, trying to shake him off. Tsa-cho cried out, his voice almost playful and most certainly elated, and then finished with a piercing cry. The mare took off like a shot across the prairie, running along the base of the mesa, with Tsa-cho moving his body in tandem as they raced away.

[…]

Renaldo cleared his throat. “Tsa-cho,” he said. “He’s an incredible rider. I’ve seen people stay astride bucking green-brokes, but nothing like that.”

The corner of Hank’s mouth tugged up at one corner; his eyes filled with mirth. “Well,” he drawled. “He grew up with horses, too.”

 

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