When I walked under the wrought iron gate that read ‘Fernandez’, I knew that there was no turning back. Emotionally I was already there, and being this close, I wasn’t about to turn back now.
Peering down the long feeder road, the ranch slowly came into view. It was a white washed hacienda much like the ones I had seen in South America. They reminded me of the historic Spanish monasteries I had seen along the California coast, which made sense considering that I was in Spain; Lora del Rio to be exact. And although I was just 45 miles from Seville, it felt like I was 60 years in the past.
Horses galloped across the dusty land in front of the ranch. They were being herded by a young man in a denim shirt. I was still too far to see who it was, but every man I saw I examined closely. I had traveled hundreds of miles to find just one of them. And this close, it took everything I had to quell my excitement.
Dusty, grimy and with my kinky hair pulled back, I looked like a boy and I knew it. That was my goal. I had to hide all of my broad feminine curves, disguise my city upbringing and hit on as many women as I could. These were my instructions. Cattle ranching was a man’s profession, but over the years the bull-headed Spanish men had come to accept the occasional lesbian in their ranks.
Still five hundred feet from the hacienda, I took a right turn toward the stables and then into the ranch office.
“Are you Pablo?” I asked in my rough but serviceable Spanish.
The man behind the desk looked me up and down before responding gruffly in his rural Castilian Spanish. “What do you want?”
“I’m Ez your new cowboy.”
He looked at me squinting his old, tired eyes. I hadn’t said that I was a woman in my letter to him because if I had, he would never have responded. He was sure to believe my lesbian guise once he took a look at me, but I had to stand in front of him to even have a shot of pulling it off.
“No,” the old man said before returning his attention to the forms on his rickety desk.
“What do you mean, no? You already offered me the job. I walked 10 miles to get here.” I wasn’t sure if that part was true, but it sure felt like it. “And I’m better than anyone you got here.”
The old man looked up again and stared at me still only wiggling his thick grey mustache. “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?”
Without missing a beat, I responded. “Does yours?”
I knew that it was never a good idea to challenge a Spanish guy’s masculinity, but Pablo was old. I figured that I could get away with it as long as I kept my jabs to retorts.
“Hm,” he grunted returning his attention to his paperwork.
It felt like a minute of silence passed. I had long ago learned that in negotiations, the first person who speaks loses. And as much as I had gone through to get here, I wasn’t about to make such an obvious mistake now.
“So, you’re Ez?” He said in a mocking tone.
“Yeah. Or Ezie if you have a problem with Ez.”
“We don’t have cowgirls here. You’re going to have to find work somewhere else.”
“What, are the cowboys here so weak that they can’t handle completion for a girl?”
That did it. That got him to look up. I knew it wouldn’t take much to ignite his male ego. I just had to play it right. Too much and he would have me thrown out. The right amount and I would have what I came here for.
“This job isn’t a joke. We work with fighting bulls. You know what a fighting bull would do to your pretty little body?”
“You mean the same thing it did to yours?” I countered.
He was taunting me. I didn’t look pretty right now, far from it. I looked like what the cat dragged in. I was sure of it. In fact, I had used all of my makeup skills to emphasize it. I looked like a butch lesbian that lived her life in the sun without sunscreen. I looked ragged.
“Look, sorry you wasted your time, but the job has been filled.”
“No, it hasn’t. I asked around before I walked in.” I hadn’t, but he didn’t know that.
“It was just filled.”
“Yeah, by me, the person you hired.”
“We don’t have a place for you here,” he said emphatically.
“I could out herd you,” I said after a pause.
Pablo turned his solid gaze onto my soul and I would not back down. I could feel him in my mind going through the files, trying to find my weakness, but he wasn’t going to find anything. I knew why I was here. I knew what I was up against. And even if it meant that I would have fight everyman in the place, I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Now that I would like to see,” he finally concluded.
I didn’t smile at this. I knew that this was when things would get hard. He still had no intention in giving me the job he promised. What he wanted to do was teach me a lesson. This was good though because it meant that I had a shot. He would throw everything at me that he had. But if I survived with even a modicum of success, he would have to seriously consider me.
The question was, though, what form would the test take. He wasn’t kidding about the danger of fighting bulls. Spanish fighting bulls were bred for their aggression. I had heard stories of fighting bulls attacking and flipping cars. And the Fernandez ranch was known all over Spain for raising the strongest bulls. One wrong step and the bull would kill you. There were cowboys who died on this ranch.
However, although I thought it would be, herding a bull wasn’t the challenge Pablo gave me. Apparently he didn’t even want it to get that far. The challenge was the horse. Walking down the barn I heard a horse continuously kicking on the wooden walls of his stall. It was strong, that was obvious. But what I hadn’t expected was how big it was. This was the biggest horse I had ever seen. And from the look of it, this was the one horse that ever cattle ranch had that couldn’t be ridden.
‘Shit,’ I thought not giving away my intense dread. I didn’t want to, but I had to look back and get Pablo’s response to this. He didn’t look like a man that smiled very much, so he wasn’t smiling. But he did look content with himself.
“You don’t have anything bigger?” I asked displaying nothing but confidence.
Pablo laughed. It was a mocking laugh, but I knew that I was making headway. The old man walked away and quickly returned with a saddle. He rested it on the stall’s ledge and stepped back waiting for my reaction.
I guess he was thinking that I would object. This horse was clearly unrideable. And as beautiful as it was, I was sure that many of the men at the ranch had tried.
I have to admit that it did take me a few minutes to recognize my good fortune. Initially I was looking at the horse as this untamed beast. It had been months since my time with Daniel, the fireman. So the memory of our naked ride on wild horses took a moment to surface.
There was one thing that I would never forget about the encounter with those horses. It was what it was like gaining the trust of my beautiful steed. Looking into her soulful eyes I recognized another living, thinking creature looking back at me. The way I earned her trust was not by proving my strength to it like Daniel had done with his stallion. It was by connecting with it.
When I had looked into my wild horse’s eyes, I let it know that I wasn’t looking to dominate it. I had gained its trust, not by letting it know that it could trust me, but by letting it know that I trusted it. Only then did it let me on it.
If I was going to ride the bucking bronco before me, that is what I was going to have to do again. This was going to be a little harder because by now, this stallion had surely had many cowboys try to break its spirit. My wild horse had probably never had such an issue. I was most likely the first human it had come into close contact with. And without having had negative human interactions, trust came quickly.
Trust with the bronco was obviously going to take a while. So taking a step away from the saddle, I positioned myself so that the bronco and I could both see each other. I then stood perfectly still.
Initially the bronco didn’t like what I was doing. It bucked and kicked the wall. It snorted at me and circled the pen. But when it calmed down and got used to me, I took one step closer.
Waiting and then approaching, waiting and then approaching I inched closer. Soon I was standing immediately outside of the pass-thru of the stall. And when it calmed down and looked me in the eyes without bucking, I stepped inside.
After the first ten minutes Pablo had asked me if I was going to ride it. When I didn’t answer, he had walked off. So two hours later when I stood directly in front of the bronco with my forehead resting calmly on the space between his eyes, Pablo wasn’t there to see it.
It took another hour after that to get the saddle on. Even though we had established a trust between us, it wasn’t used to being confined. It was used to running free. I could appreciate that.
Pulling and sliding my way onto its back, I sat up. I had never sat this high off the ground before. He was massive. He was a stallion in every sense of the word, and his strength feed me as much as my calm fed him. And when we galloped, it was like no other experience I had ever had.
In the past few months I had ridden a lot of horses. I had taken formal horseback riding classes in doma vaquero which is the name of the horsemanship style that the American and European styles are base on. After that I assisted my trainer as she taught new students.
Later I found a bull herding class and spent months learning that. There was no way that my 8 months of training could equal the cumulated life experience of someone like Pablo. But I needed to be here, in this city, at this ranch, and I was willing to do and say anything to be here.
This bronco galloped for twenty minutes straight. And when it slowed down, I kicked my heels and got him to run for ten minutes more. We were both exhausted when we were done. My legs felt like rubber and I was sure that the horse felt the same. So when I rode it back into the ranch as a tamed, calm horse devoid of its feisty spirit, all of the ranchers gathered around to watch.
As exhausted as I was, I knew that this was my time to shine. Whatever I did now would always be what the cowboys remembered me for. So calmly trotting the stallion past the ranchers, I took a slight detour and grabbed the lance leaning against the stable wall.
The first time I had seen a lance at a ranch, it immediately reminded me of the famous painting of Don Quixote where he’s riding his skinny horse carrying his lance and shield. I had had a poster of that painting hanging in my college dorm. But it wasn’t until my herding instructor explained that in Spain, the lance is used to herd cattle and goats and not as a weapon, that I truly understood the painting that I had seen thousands of times.
With all of the cowboys’ eyes still on me, I picked up the lance and trotted to the bull pen. Inside I immediately identified the most dangerous bull. Bull pens were always stocked with one alpha. That was the one most likely to attach you. But if you stayed clear of that one, you can get any of the others to do whatever you wanted.
With my lance in hand I gently brushed the bulls into a rotating circle. Staying clear of the alpha, I circled all of the bulls around it. And when I was sure that my observers were impressed, I changed their direction and circled them counter-clockwise. Then finally when I felt I had done enough, I slowed them to a stop and let myself out of the pen.
The men stared at me amazed. More than one stood with his mouth hanging open. I wanted to gloat, but I knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t even acknowledge them. What I had done was hard. Trying it was a complete gamble. When I had attempted it with my instructor watching I had failed every single time. This was the first time that I had ever rotated bulls successfully, and what a time to get it right.
Maybe the reason why the bulls rotated this time was my horse. It was intimidating. Maybe it was my confidence. Or maybe it was just divine providence. There were a lot experiences that I had had since leaving my apartment in Los Angeles those many months ago that seemed guided by a supernatural force. And considering that a supernatural touch was what was needed to work here. It no longer surprised me to see what could be described as a miracle.
Again riding past the men, I directed my exhausted bronco back to its stall. With all of the men still watching me, I climbed down from the mountain top trying not to fall. Fighting my wobbling legs, I immediately removed the saddle returning it to the ledge of the stall.
Exiting the stall I returned with a tack box that I had found in the passage way. Taking out the sweat scraper I ran it over the horse. Lora del Rio was warm any time of the year, but with summer quickly approaching, the horse was drenched.
Refilling the water bucket when it was emptied, I next brushed the horse. The men all stood outside the stall watching me. I knew what they were thinking. Hours ago this horse had been unrideable. Now I was grooming it like I had been riding it for years. It was an impressive feat. And I was sure that its remarkability wasn’t lost on them.
When I was done and the horse was completely groomed, I stepped out of the stall and placed the tack box at Pablo’s feet. I looked him in the eyes and could feel the other men hanging on the moment.
“There is no one better,” I repeated in my heavily accented Spanish. “Where do I sleep?”
Pablo continued to stare at me in disbelief as the silence dragged on. I waited and waited until finally I heard it.
“I’ll show you,” he said like music to my ears.
Taking off my riding chaps and slinging my backpack over my shoulders, I followed Pablo out of the stables. Though I wanted to glance back and give the men a taunting look, I didn’t. I knew that the drama would be more if I didn’t acknowledge their presence at all. It was hard, but I was sure that ultimately the reward of my restraint would be ten-fold. Until then however, all I could do was to keep looking forward, wait for Pablo to look away, and then smile.
For the first week at the ranch, it seemed like they didn’t know what to do with me. I slept in a dorm by myself for a few days and then the cowboys who were on break arrived back. Word had spread about their new lesbian cowgirl, so I didn’t have to explain myself once they arrived.
I did my best not to look at them for very long. One of my bull trainers was lesbian and it was something I noticed her doing. She treated guys with such distain that there was never a reason to question whose team she was playing on. I mirrored my behavior on her.
When finally gathered, ours was a team of four. Tippy was the lead. Smoky, Carlos and I were his support. Carlos was kind of hot and in other circumstances would have been my type. But I didn’t go through everything I had been through to get here, just to hook up with some random cowboy. So as hot as he was, Carlos and I could be alone under the stars for a thousand nights and nothing was going to happen.
With everyone together, Tippy informed me of how the ranch worked. There were two herds that were continuously out to pasture plus the fighting bulls that were penned behind the ranch. The herds consisted of 200 heads at a five to one ratio of long horns to fighting bulls. The fighting bulls couldn’t all be penned together because of their aggressiveness. So the most aggressive were mixed in with the long horns because for whatever reason, long horns had a calming effect on the bulls.
The shifts were three weeks on and one week off. Each team rotated between the two grazing herds and the teams were arranged in a three and one. That meant that during the day, three cowboys herded while one slept and cooked. Then at night, the cook took watch over the sleeping herd and ended their shift by cooking breakfast.
On the day before our team headed out, guess who Tippy designated the cook? Yep, it was me. It was fine though. Not only was this my first cowboy experience, but I wasn’t looking to make waves.
“You don’t act like a lesbian,” Carlos was the first person to say.
Yeah, if only he knew how many guys I had been with in the last year. If only he knew the kind of fun we would have had together if I had met him a few months earlier. Life is about timing though, and right now I had someone else on my mind.
It was during my horsemanship classes that I had first heard about him. Milagro Muchacho. That translated into English as the miracle boy. The way I was told it, Milagro Muchacho was five years old when he began to hear voices. The first was the voice of his a young friend who had died. And when he started communicating the messages from the relatives of those who came around to see him, his mother recognized the opportunity they had.
From what I was told, Milagro Muchacho’s mother dressed him up in a blue suit that made him look like the front man in mariachi boy band, and then took him from village to village. She would arrange Milagro Muchacho to see anyone who had the money to pay, and the boy very quickly became a local celebrity. Even some of the ranch owners paid to see him. And it all continued until the boy turned fourteen years old and quit.
The rumor is that he lost his abilities. There are some stories about him seeing a light and going blind. Others talk about how one day God came to him and rendered him mute. But whichever story you choose to believe, the end result is the same. After eight years of earning a lot of money, he quit and never channeled for the dead again.
All of that would have sufficed as an interesting campfire story if my time with the fireman didn’t put me in desperate need of a man who had an understanding about miracles. So I asked a few more questions and discovered that the miracle boy would be in his early thirties by now. And as chance would have it, one of the boys taking lessons where I trained, had a mother who grew up in the same village as the miracle boy. She said that her mother was still friends with his mother and that he was now a cowboy on the Fernandez ranch.
I didn’t need to hear more than this. From that point forward I spent every waking moment plotting on how I could meet the miracle boy who was sure to be my miracle man. And as soon as I had become proficient with a horse, I found a cowboy herder who I paid to teach me everything he knew about herding.
After that I offered a few cowboys good money to let me know as soon as a job at the Fernandez Ranch became available. And then I paid another of them to not take the job and instead recommend me.
The whole thing burned through most of the money Henri had given me to get my way home. The rest I buried a few miles outside of the ranch on the day I arrived. But if Milagro Muchacho was genuine and still had his ability, which something told me that he did, all of the money I spent would be worth it.
The problem now was that if Milagro Muchacho was with me at the ranch, I didn’t know who he was. Everyone was already suspicious of the lone lesbian in the group so I couldn’t just ask for Milagro Muchacho. No, I had to find him myself. But if he was as special as the stories described him, he would certainly stand out in a group of cowboys.
The problem was, though, that no one was standing out. Pablo, Tippy, Smoky, Carlos, none of these guys were exceptional in anyway. Sure Carlos was hot, but that alone wasn’t the makings of a miracle man.
When it came time to head out to our herd and relieve the current shift, there was some debate about which horse to give me. Although I had seemed to break the bronco, it didn’t stick. When others tried to ride him the next day, he threw them as quickly as they had before. He wouldn’t let anyone on him except me.
Pablo knew that this could be a prized stallion if they could break him. And because of that they didn’t want to release him to me as my herding horse. But when it was brought up that more time with me could tame him further, the decision was made. I would ride him when out on the trail. And because of my special assignment, I would be given extra free time to run him whenever I needed. Smoky and Carlos initially looked resentful at the special treatment, but they hid it quickly.
Loading up our horses with three weeks of supplies, we headed out. Cowboys were not often thought of as a talkative group, and my team was no exception. We must have ridden for fifteen miles and no one said a word the entire time.
It was actually quite peaceful. The only thing in front of us was the land. And surrounded by the natural beauty of rolling hills and green pasture, you felt nature’s majestic wonder. On long rides like this, I remembered my own insignificance in the grand scheme of this billion year old world. It was humbling and never ceased to help me put my life into perspective.
After two hours, Tippy called for a twenty minute watering break for the horses. I wasn’t going to be the newbie that asked ‘how much further?’ So instead I assumed that we were about halfway there. Two and a half hours later, it turned out that I was correct.
Appearing in the distance was a large herd and they weren’t as docile as I had come to believe. They were more like eight year olds at recess. There were black bulls chasing each other and brown long horns wandering in all directions away from their designated graze zone. This was not what I was expecting.
As we approached the back of the herd, Tippy let out a piercing series of whistles. One at a time the three cowboys looked over. One of them pointed west and with the sun still directly over us, we headed in that direction.
In a quarter of a mile we found it. Perched on top of a slight hill was their camp. There were four tents and a white bearded grizzled man manning the fire. Sizzling in the pan was something that smelled like pungent pork. My guess was that one of the cowboys had shot it as a relief from the monotony of beans, jerky, powered eggs and powered milk.
I imagined that I would be called on to do the same thing. Gutting and skinning rodents and foxes was a part of what I learned in cowboy training. I hadn’t actually gutted and skinned an animal during that training, but I had watched very closely as everyone else did. I was optimistic that I would be made a herder and not a cook, but I guess that was just wishful thinking on my part.
Once we settled in, the off-shift cowboys arrived one by one for lunch. As they did, one of us would replace them. I examined them closely as they got there. I was still looking for Milagro Muchacho and one of these guys could have been him.
The first guy was the right age but didn’t look like the kid in the picture I saw. The second guy was short and lost looking. I really doubted that that was him. And the third… well, him, I wasn’t sure about. He seemed self-assured and competent. He was rugged looking and built. He could have been him, but with neither of us speaking a word, I could only guess.
I watched him as the team packed up their gear. He looked warn. Three weeks were long shifts when all you are doing is babysitting cattle and moving them from one pasture to another.
When the third guy got on his horse for the final time, I became convinced that he was the man I was looking for. I couldn’t say why, but I was sure that he had to be. About to ride away I quickly shuffled over to him and caught his eyes. I wanted to speak but couldn’t. How would I tell him all of the things that I wanted to tell him without blowing my cover? I couldn’t. And before I knew it, I was looking at the back of four horses as they rode into the distance.
Watching them go, I realized that I had missed my opportunity. I was convinced of it. I was sure that I would get others, but when would that be? In the rotation cycle I wouldn’t see him again for five weeks. And even then, all it would be is what I had on that first day; 30 minutes of watching him pack up his gear and five minutes of watching him ride away.
I had to come up with a better plan. The good thing was that I had five weeks to do it and a lot of time to think about it. But for the day, I decided to put him aside and focus on my first day on the job. The guys had only had jerky for lunch so their first dinner had to be substantial.
I dug through our supplies. We had mostly dried meat, but we were giving some fresh meat that was meant to be cooked on the first day. I rekindled the fire keeping the meat in its foil wrapping. I was told it would take five hours to prepare and would last two days once cooked. So positioning the meat on the fire, I settled in and got used to the lay of the land.
As it got dark I knew that my first shift would be rough. Once Tippy, Smoky and I had eaten I was supposed to relieve Carlos. I then was supposed to stay horseback all night just in case something comes up, and then switch with someone in the morning so that I could go back and cook breakfast.
“You really like girls?” Carlos asked me when I rode close enough to touch him.
“Yeah,” I said feeling a little flushed.