This is the second installment of the serialized novella, Ocho. See May 23 for Part One.
Honor de un Hombre (A Man’s Honor)
They drove across the prairie lit silver by a waxing moon. Zefarino dozed to the rhythm of the Chief bouncing along the two-track, unable to sleep deeply with a 15-year-old at the wheel. Teaching Lucas to drive had challenged the old man’s patience. The boy quickly mastered the stick shift mounted on the steering column, but had a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Zefarino held tight to the dash-mounted handle, softly asking Lucas to slow as the rear tires slipped around bends and corners in the road. Eventually, the boy had acquiesced to the old man’s instructions, but Zefarino suspected Lucas did as he pleased by himself. This worried the old man.
“While I’m gone, you must listen to the patron, do as he tells you.”
“El es un pendejo…I’d rather work for you,” Lucas said, as he took a fork in the road too fast for the old man’s liking.
Zefarino chuckled at the boy’s borrowed Spanish, then frowned. “He is still our jefe…our boss…no?” He waggled a finger at Lucas. “You must be a man, now.” He loved the boy and hated to scold him. But sometimes a teacher must be harsh. “Where will you go without this job? Who else will take in an orphan?”
Lucas said nothing, his smile fading as he sped around a dog leg in the road, sagebrush scraping the side of the truck.
“Be sure to care for the horses and mules as I have taught you,” the old man said. “I will not be there to wake you. You must jingle up the stock on your own, never delaying the patron and his hunters.”
When Lucas nodded in agreement, Zefarino went on, “After you corral the animals, give them a little grain…also, pick out their feet and make sure their shoes are on good. Then--”
“Brush ‘em out and saddle the dudes’ mounts,” Lucas finished.
The old man grinned. “We have done this many times, I know, but I want you to do well…maybe the guests will tip you.”
The boy cast him a sideways glance, again that tone of doubt, “Just how long are you gonna be gone?”
Zefarino gazed through the windshield toward the Front, a dark silhouette towering above the sagebrush hills. “Who can say? I will know when I find Ocho’s trail and learn for myself how badly they wounded him.”
Lucas whistled low. “That big ol’ bull could pack a lotta lead. You might be wastin’ your time, trying to track him down.”
“Perhaps,” the old man mused, “but I do not like to think of him killed in his bed by a puma…or worse, eaten alive by los lobos.”
Such a shoddy death for one so magnificent, the old man thought. No, I will find him and end his suffering. It is the least I can do for the pleasure of his company.
“I know you two go back a ways,” the boy said. “Those are his shed antlers you got nailed to the stable, aren’t they?”
“Yes, and he is much bigger now.” Zefarino looked for Ocho on the winter range every year, always happy to see the monarch return when snow piled deep in December. He liked to imagine the old bull ruling the back country and fooling the guests every fall. The old man had been a hunter in his youth. He did not begrudge the dudes their sport, but the two ranch hands were not true hunters. They had not respected Ocho.
Zefarino shook his head, remembering the task at hand. “The gate on the corral needs to be fixed…and tighten that hinge on the barn door. Make sure to break the ice off the water tank. Check with the cook every day, see if he needs help…and don’t forget la senora wishes the back porch swept now and then.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of things,” Lucas sighed. “You just be careful up there, old man.”
“When the guests return in the evening, curry and brush the stock, then feed them,” Zefarino said. “Put away the tack on the rack, so it dries, and make sure to adjust the dudes’ saddles…but do not to touch the patron’s stirrups.”
“Oh, I already learned that lesson.” The boy rolled his eyes.
“Yes, now I remember. He is very particular.”
“Zefarino, don’t you ever get tired of taking care of them?”
The old man rubbed the white stubble on his chin. “They own us…me forever, but you, just for a while.”
I have not talked to the boy about his future, the old man thought. I must tell him he does not have to accept my fate. He is an Americano. He is young and has a chance to leave.
“But look at all you know, what you’ve taught me,” Lucas said. “We could leave here, find a better place.”
“I am in this country without papers. Where can I go? Besides, I am too old to find another home.”
Lucas protested, “You and me, we make a good team. We could make some real money.”
Zefarino laughed. “There is no money in what we do…anywhere. Besides, I am content to settle for what I am, but I wish more for you.”
“Take pride in your work. Do nothing half-way. The horses and mules will consider you their friend. Learn to talk to the guests and the patron. If you do these things, soon you will have a chance to better yourself.”
Lucas took his eyes off the road, glancing at Zefarino. “Why are you telling me all of this now?”
“Because I still can.” The old man remembered another time when he had not taken the chance. He closed his eyes, traveling back a long ways…
The old man returned to Lucas. “One day you will have a family. Cherish them. Nothing is more important.”
The boy pointed ahead, where a mule deer doe and two fawns stood frozen at the edge of the road. He slowed, allowing them to cross, stiff legged and wary.
The old man looked at Lucas with caring eyes. “Be kind to others, no matter the color of their skin…or how much wealth they have.”
“I’ll do everything you say, but you’re scaring me.”
Zefarino smiled softly. “Always treat women well, and, Lucas, learn to forgive your mother.”
The boy stiffened. “I don’t know….”
Zefarino gazed out his window, allowing Lucas a moment alone. Then he said, “She was very young…and by herself.”
The boy said nothing.
“Someday, when you are older, you will understand.”
Fir and pine now dotted the hills, with patchy snow betraying the rising elevation. The trailhead neared. The old man wondered, what else do I tell a boy who soon must be a man? He sat in awkward silence as Lucas down-shifted into first gear, climbing the last grade to the end of the road. Too soon, the truck pulled into a grove of tangled aspen.
“Well, here we are.” The boy stopped the Chief, pulling on the parking brake as the old man had taught him. “I’ll help you with your gear.”
They stepped from the truck into ankle-deep snow, the old man stretching his stiff leg after the long and bumpy ride. To the east, a pinkish hue spread above the horizon. Zefarino breathed deeply, enjoying the musky scent of sage and dead leaves on the frosty air. Somewhere on the plains below, a noisy pack of coyotes yipped and whined and barked. He whispered, “This has always been my favorite time of day.”
“This has always been my favorite time of day to sleep,” Lucas said with a laugh, “but you can count on me.”
Lowering the Chief’s battered tailgate, Zefarino retrieved his rucksack and a walking stick he had carved from the stem of a diamond willow. In growing light, he watched Lucas fetch the rifle and binoculars from the gun rack mounted over the rear window.
The old man slung the pack on his back, then pulled his arms through the shoulder straps. The heft felt satisfying, solid but not too heavy.
Lucas neared, first handing over the binoculars which the old man slipped around his neck by a thin leather strap. Before taking the rifle, Zefarino shook the boy’s hand and pulled him close. “Honor… it is more than just a word, Lucas. It means doing the best you can…with what you have.”
“Good luck, old man, some day I hope I can be like you.”
“Then take what I have told you, and learn from it…as a man does.”
“I’ll remember everything you said.”
Zefarino smiled, then gazed where the trail entered the timbered mountain side.
The time had come to prove his own honor.
Jim Satterfield is the award-winning author of The River’s Song and Saving Laura. Go to www.jimsatterfield.com to learn more about his writing.