Diego Diaz sat atop Relampago, his favorite hunting stallion, surveying the herd of buffalo that covered the Llano Estacado like a jungle, a forest of tossing horns and shaggy hides upon the broad, empty grassland. The buffalo were Diego’s purpose, both sport and business. He was a cibolero, a hunter of the plains. Together with his cousins and neighbors Diego would bring down enough of the shaggy beasts to fill the smokehouse with meat for a long time. The buffalo robes, dressed hides of the best quality, would be traded at the great market in Santa Fe. The tallow was used for candles and cooking. The wool from the buffaloes’ necks stuffed mattresses. The horns and bones could be fashioned into spoons, combs, powder horns, and anything else New Mexican craftsmen could carve. For the New Mexican cibolero, the buffalo was the staff of life just as much as it was for the Indian of the plains.
Diego patted Relampago’s neck. There was nothing he loved better than to be atop a fine horse, lance couched, charging at running buffalo, above all being a hero. Well, perhaps dancing with a lovely señorita, especially Olga. The girls preferred to dance with Diego precisely because he was a young man who charged running buffalo with a lance. Diego heard a voice humming and turned to look. It was his primero, José, who assisted with skinning the buffalo.
“Hola, José,” Diego said. “What’s that tune?”
“It’s the old one about Efrain Ortiz and how he broke his neck when his horse tripped. I made up some new verses.”
“You’re not half bad as a singer. You should make up some new songs.” Diego smiled, but he did not like the ominous subject of José’s song.
José shrugged. “No one’s broken his neck in a while. A guy from Santa Fe got killed by Cheyennes a few weeks ago.”
Diego carried a carbine musket slung on his back, its muzzle stuffed with colored strands of wool. Like most hunters, he considered it too chancy to dispatch a buffalo. It was what a man needed if he had to stand off Cheyennes in a dispute over who had rights to the hunting ground.
“The mayordomo has the carretas waiting just this side of the draw,” José said. “I’ll stay back and follow to bleed the animals you fell.”
Diego nodded and turned Relampago back to the buffalo herd. Now was the moment. Silently he offered a prayer for success in the hunt, that the Virgin not let the little ones go with empty bellies. He dug in his spurs and Relampago launched forward like a rocket. The buffalo heard him coming and began to run. But the fastest buffalo in the world was no match for a Spanish mustang in a dead run. Diego bore in, as steady on Relampago’s back as if he were sitting on a bench outside Olga’s house.
Diego picked out a fat cow. He could picture the tender steaks sizzling on mama’s oven, served up with beans, mole, and a mountain of tortillas. Relative speed counted for much in this business. Diego spurred Relampago to a final burst of speed and he tore past the cow, lancing her through her huge heart. She fell dead and Relampago thundered on.
Diego was among the herd now. Tossing horns and shaggy hides surrounded him on all sides like an angry sea. Diego had never seen the ocean, but he could picture the undertow of pounding hooves. Now was no time to quit. Diego never brought down less than a dozen on a run. He picked out a huge bull next.
Diego struck the bull right between the ribs. The beast bellowed and tossed its shaggy head in wrath. Diego knew this one meant business. The huge bull made a sudden, savage rush at him. The beast’s horns came within an inch of disemboweling Relampago. But the stallion was too agile, darting aside while avoiding the other running buffalo. Diego gave the buffalo another stab, but couldn’t land a solid blow, he merely enraged the bull with a shallow prick.
Suddenly the herd began to bunch. The bull was still running, hot to destroy his tormentor. Blood was slobbering from its lips. In an open field Relampago could outrun the bull easily, but he was hemmed in. Diego looked back and saw the bull gaining, wicked horns lowered for a devastating thrust. Desperately, he wheeled Relampago and drove the lance again into the bull’s chest. The bull veered away and Diego tore off in pursuit of fresh game.
Diego laughed as Relampago wove through the running herd. This was life, the wind in one’s face, a fine horse, spurning danger, and winning glory. A thought flickered through his mind, If this was life, was it not to kill and risk death? Then Diego’s focus returned to riding and bringing down his prey.
He took two cows in quick succession. Then Relampago leapt a small boulder and Diego had to cling for life. He began to hum the old song of Efrain the fallen hunter. He had been dead thirteen years, a dim memory to Diego. But Efrain lived vividly in that song, a bold hunter with a fine horse and a steady hand. It’s a hell of a way to get a song about yourself, Diego thought.
Diego lanced six more buffalo. One more would make his dozen. They were coming close to the carretas. José and his helpers would be at work bleeding the fallen beasts, making sure they were dead before the mayordomo brought the rest of the camp down to help with skinning and packing.
Relampago was still running strong. Diego selected his prey, a lumbering cow, and bore in on it.
One moment Diego was atop Relampago. The next he was flying through the air. Diego never saw the gopher hole Relampago stepped in. It was not carelessness, simply that no human eye could see small holes covered with grass from atop a flying horse while coursing a herd of enraged buffalo. A man took his chances when he rode.
They found Diego lying on the prairie, Relampago still at his side, limping on a leg that would never heal. Ever after, the hunters swore the horse was weeping. A sharp knife gave Relampago a final act of mercy. The mayordomo, an old hunter who had seen much of life and death in his sixty years, oversaw Diego’s burial and made sure they said a mass for him in the little church back home.
One day when José was nearly eighty, he sat in the plaza of Santa Fe strumming his guitar. His fingers were old and ached abominably, but they still picked out the old tunes. New Mexico had been an American territory since the war in 1846. A new century had begun, one with telephones, electric lights, automobiles, and phonographs. They mayordomo was long gone, as was Olga, though her many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren overspread the land. The buffalo were gone too.
“Hey, old timer, what’s that tune?” a passerby asked.
José looked up there was a couple, a man and a woman, tourists evidently, speaking in English.
José knew enough English to reply. “It’s an old song about a hunter and a horse,” he said quietly. Then he began to sing.
A man lives boldly on the open plains,
Or he does not live at all.
A good horse, a strong lance, a sharp eye,
Diego Diaz, he had them all.
On the wide Llano Estacado,
He met his fate without warning.
Diego and his Relampago,
They were the best we ever had.
They left their bones on the barren soil,
They will ever live in this song.
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