Highly skilled, hard-working, and loyal to each other and to the ranches that employ them, the Mexican and Mexican American vaqueros who work on the famous King and Kenedy Ranches of South Texas' Wild Horse Desert are some of America's best cowboys. Many of them come from families who have lived and worked on the ranches for over a hundred years. They preserve the memories of ranch life handed down by their grandparents and great-grandparents, even as they use modern technologies to keep the ranches running smoothly in the twenty-first century.
This book tells the stories of the vaqueros of the Wild Horse Desert for fourth- through eighth-grade students. It begins with a brief history of the vaqueros and the King and Kenedy Ranches. Then, using in the words of today's vaqueros and their families, it describes many aspects of past and present life on the ranches. Young readers will learn what it's like to grow up on the ranches and how vaqueros learn their work. They'll also discover how much goes into being a vaquero, from using all the different ropes and equipment, to working a round-up, to showing prize-winning cattle and horses. Teachers and parents will appreciate all the supplemental material in the appendix, including a glossary, lists of related books and websites, hands-on learning activities, and even range and camp house recipes.
Nicolas lived in the Wild Horse Desert, a land of endless waving grass and searing heat in South Texas. He lived on King Ranch, one of several large ranches in this desert. Nicolas was born on the Ranch in 1898. His father died when he was six months old, and his mother worked hard to support her children.
Nicolas had held a paying job hauling water since he was eleven. The money he earned was spent for cloth, from which his mother sewed the family's clothing, and for shoes for his younger brother, Manuel, and sister, Marcela. With the five pesos his mother was paid as caretaker of the main entrance gate to the Ranch, plus the food rations furnished by the Ranch, the family was able to survive.
Then one day in 1915, everything changed. By now, Nicolas had a new job working in the fields. On this day, he went early to the fields as usual and worked all day, ending at dark. Near sunset he and his fellow workers heard popping noises that sounded like gunshots coming from the direction of El Hotel, the home of Caesar Kleberg, cousin to the owners of King Ranch.
Nicolas was afraid. The gunshots could mean that bandits were coming across the Rio Grande from Mexico again. Sometimes the bandits were Mexicans and sometimes they were Anglos, both looking to steal cattle from the big ranches. Some of the Mexican bandits were from families that had been former land owners in Texas, and they believed that Texan lawyers, through unfair practices, had unlawfully taken their property. They sought revenge. There was a great deal of tension on both sides of the Rio Grande, the border between Mexico and Texas. Nicolas's mother was working at El Hotel the day the shots were heard. She and all the other workers were terrified, and they quickly hid under the beds. As the bandits approached El Hotel, one of them put a rifle through the door and fired before entering.
When the gunshots ceased and all was quiet, Nicolas returned to El Hotel to find that his mother had been killed by a stray bullet. One story was that his brother Manuel lived only because a bullet hit his belt.
The bandits stayed until dark, kidnapping Manuel as they left. Manuel later told how he had been pulled up behind a bandit on horseback as they fled. He managed to fall off the horse in the pitch-black night and hide in the grass. Then, after walking for hours, Manuel returned to El Hotel around two o'clock in the morning. He was finally joined there by Nicolas, who had hidden in a field when he heard the gunshots. The next day, Texas Rangers arrived by train to guard the Ranch, but their presence did not lessen the grief that Nicolas and his brother and sister felt.
Nicolas remembered his mother's funeral:
Nobody came. It was only us, the children. It was dangerous at that time because of the bandits. Everyone was scared and, therefore, nobody came to the funeral for fear that the bandits would come back. There were like fifty rangers [Texas Rangers] in the hotel, and nobody could go out. It was 1915, and I was seventeen years old.
Nicolas Rodríguez became a vaquero, a Mexican cowboy, on King Ranch. He is a descendant of this country's first cowboys. They are the real cowboys on whose work the Anglo cowboy legend portrayed on movie and television screens is based.
Vaqueros are descendants of the Spanish settlers and Mestizos, people with a blend of Spanish and Indian blood. Their origins stem from experienced horsemen who came from Spain to Mexico in the 1500s and passed their expertise on to the native Indians. The vaqueros worked on the grand haciendas (large ranches) of northern Mexico and later came to the Wild Horse Desert in Texas to share their knowledge of cattle and horses. Some of these vaquero families have worked on the King and Kenedy Ranches for more than one hundred years.
These vaqueros and their families have many stories to tell of their highly skilled work with some of the most prized cattle and horses in the world. Their tales recount their important contributions to America's cattle industry and to the settling of the Southwest.