The fourth installment in my series about the anguished and troubled mid-life years of Denver lawyer Luis Móntez was published in 1997 by St. Martin's Press. I have a very warm spot in my heart for Blues for the Buffalo, for a number of reasons. I managed to turn the germ of an idea about Oscar Acosta into a full-blown mystery novel, without exploiting the man's iconic myth. I presented several themes without distracting from the book's essential detective core; at least that's my opinion. And although it did not win any awards, Blues for the Buffalo was the best reviewed book in the series (a starred review in Publishers Weekly, for example.)
When Northwestern University Press reprinted the Móntez novels in an attractive and affordable trade paperback format, in 2004, I asked fellow mystery writer John Straley to write a foreword. J0hn has written truly creative and intelligent novels over several years; his latest is The Big Both Ways (Alaska Northwest Books, 2008). I hear he also recently published a collection of poetry, The Rising and the Rain (University of Alaska, November, 2008), which I haven't had a chance yet to read, but it's on my list. I'm a big fan of John's and was very pleased when he agreed to do the foreword. Ilan Stavans wrote an introduction to the book, as he did for all of the Northwestern reprints, and together John and Ilan managed to see more in Buffalo than I ever imagined.
Chapter 8 - Blues for the Buffalo
copyright 1997 by Manuel Ramos, all rights reserved
Jesús Genaro Móntez needed a shave. The gray-and-white growth of three days of beard had a silky, almost angel's-hair texture, but it had to go. I lathered his face and then glided his Trac II across his wrinkled skin -- slowly, oh so slowly. The razor had a chipped handle with a veneer of old soap, but with a fresh cartridge it worked fine.
"Be careful, Louie. I ain't got much blood left, and I don't want to lose any because of your shaky hands. You drink too much, son."
"My hands don't shake, but your face sure quivers and quakes. Be still, or we will have a bloodletting. Pretend you're in the barbershop. Gee, Dad, you should try to keep on top of this personal grooming stuff."
"I'm almost eighty years old. Everyone I ever knew is either dead, in the hospital, or in a nursing home. Who am I trying to impress? Shaving is the biggest crime ever inflicted on men. I hate it, always have. This is to shut you up. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother. And I haven't been to a barber shop since Emiliano croaked that day we were all in his shop."
"That was at least ten years ago. Who cuts your hair?"
"That's for me to know, and you to mind your own business."
"I don't know Jesús. You worry me some days."
He started to laugh but he ended up coughing. I waited until he brought his heaving body back under control. I turned down his radio and opened the kitchen window to relieve some of the trapped heat that Jesús had allowed to accumulate in his house. A mix of traffic and hollering children competed with a Mexican music station deejay who jabbered about an upcoming concert at the Adams County Fairgrounds. Ostensibly, the greatest recording artists in the history of Mexico planned to grace the stage the next Saturday night, and tickets were only twenty-five bucks for a couple.
Five minutes later, I finished with his face and rinsed the razor, the soap brush, and the lather cup. He did not use prepackaged shaving cream.
Jesús said he might go to the dance.
I did not react to that statement. I calculated that in the past ten years he had been to a barber more often than he had dragged himself to a dance hall.
"I wanted to talk with you about something that happened back in the thirties. A story of yours that I remember hearing only once, when I was a kid. I think Mom made you tell it, I can't even remember why. You know what I mean, that one about the shooting, in Chandler. You were arrested, your trial and all that. There's something about all that's happened lately that reminded me of that story, but I think I'm just more curious than anything else."
He poured two cups of coffee, handed me one, and made himself comfortable in his big easy chair. He patted his face.
"That stuff you put on my skin smells kind of like anise. What is it? Stings, too."
"Aftershave. Old Spice. You had a bottle in your medicine chest. Whatever it is, it's yours."
"¡Santo Niño, Louie! That stuff is as old as you. No wonder it's burning a hole in my cheek. It must be pure alcohol. What a guy!"
He made a show of wiping his face with his handkerchief.
"I think you'll live, Dad."
"Yeah, sure. With a burned-off jaw."
"Anyway, that story. ... I don't like it because I'm not proud of what happened. Those were different times, different people."
"It's part of my history, too, Dad. I should know it."
"Yes, you may be right."
"I was a young man, maybe twenty. We lived for a time in Chandler, down by Florence. Chandler's gone now, and the only clues it ever existed are the crumbling pieces of building foundations. They moved all the houses when the mine finally played out. But when I lived there, it was a lively mining town and the miners were all Mexicanos or Italianos. The mine was owned by a man from Cañon City. I worked the mine, and so did most of my family -- the uncles and cousins I lived with in those years. I was the shift foreman. Even if I have to say it, I worked hard. I was honest and kept the men at it, so the company liked me, respected me even though I was a Mexicano. The men respected me, too. Most of them, anyway."
For a few seconds, he stared through me while his brain put the pieces of his past in place, and his mouth found the words that brought back the events.
"For someone like that, there's always somebody else who resents him, who challenges him, even though it may be all one-sided. There was a guy. Alejandro Ozuna. I think he thought he was in a feud with our family. None of us did."
"But he never really took you on, right? It was always someone else in the family, no?"
"Yes, that's right. He left me alone. ... But my brother-in-law, Samuel, was a different story. Samuel was young, younger than me, but much taller than Ozuna. He was hell. Quick to respond to provocation. A quick temper. He and Ozuna did not mix well."
I moved the story along with some of the details that I remembered from the one time I had heard this particular chapter of his life ... .
"It came to a head at one of the house parties the miners had every Friday night. I remember you talking about them. Every week a different house, but always the same party. Liquor, music, dancing, card games. Until the sun came up. And the men checked their guns at the front table. Rows of guns laid out that weren't touched until the party was over."
"Yes, that's how it was. I can still see the barrels of those guns. Long and shiny, resting next to each other like pipes on an organ."
"And at one of the parties, this guy Ozuna decided to resolve his feud, for a purpose only he knew."
"It sounds trite now, but it's true. Our lives were hard and the times were mean. Yo era muy joven, but I remember that part of my life as if it was only yesterday. We knew only work. Death came suddenly and often. Accidents in the mines, illness, and our anger. We had nothing except our friends and families. We had no country. Most of the men could not return to Mexico; everyone was escaping from something. And those of us who traced roots for more than a hundred years in this land, back before it suddenly turned into the United States, we also had no place. It had been taken from us. Men were quick to react because a delay could cost a life. Ozuna knew that, and that was how he acted that night."
He lapsed into Spanish.
Jesús cinched the holster around his waist and checked the chamber of his revolver. He belched, then slipped the weapon into its resting place. Samuel had disappeared, but Jesús could not wait. The sun soon would rise above the background silhouette of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and he needed sleep. Only one day off from the mines, and it should be a day of rest. Most of his money had changed hands during the card game, and he had not found an opportunity to dance with Marie. The night had not been a good one. Ozuna had taunted the other card players for the entire game. The whiskey mellowed some of the edginess, but Jesús had not had enough of that. He was not drunk.
Manuel handed him his hat and wished him a safe journey back to the house where he lived with several members of his brother's wife's family.
"Next week, the game will be at your house," Manuel reminded him. Jesús stepped into the night.
He normally walked straight down the road from Manuel's home. Chandler was a small town with only a few streets. Even so, the Mexicano workers lived near each other and the Italians shared the other half of the town.
The cold minutes before dawn hit him as soon as he left the warmth of Manuel's house. He buttoned his thin coat and pulled down his hat's wide brim in a futile gesture to protect the back of his neck. The night air, the cold air, magnified sounds, and his ears picked up the howling of the Sarmiento dog and the icy bubbling creek at the edge of the town. An angry man's words raced across that same air, and stopped him.
"You've laughed at me for the last time. Prepare for God or the devil!"
He jumped, frightened, but the words were not meant for him. Jesús rushed to the back of Manuel's house, quietly, and with an urgency that made his temples throb. He stood at the corner of the house, in the darkness, and watched Samuel and Alejandro. The men faced each other across the bare yard. Ozuna's gun stuck out from the top of his trousers, near his right hand. Samuel had no weapon. He had stepped outside for air without retrieving his gun from the front table.
"¡Cabrón! You're not man enough!"
Samuel, the boy, was drunk and he twisted in the blackness as he spoke. He spit at Ozuna, then turned his back. Jesús flinched. His brother-in-law had made a mistake. Ozuna reached for his gun and pointed it at Samuel's back. Jesús gripped the leathery handle of his revolver, eased it from his holster, aimed, and fired. The roar echoed in the night and rang in his ears. An orange flame flowered at the end of his gun for an instant. His hand kicked back from the gun's reflex. Ozuna spun in the dirt, reached for his side, dropped his gun, and fell. Samuel collapsed to his knees, then tried to make sense out of the night and the wounded man sprawled near him. Ozuna's spasms were quick and violent. A pool of black blood flowed into the frozen earth.
Manuel ran to the men with his own gun in his hand. The sun popped into view at the edge of the mountains, and Manuel could see that Ozuna was dead.
"I'll find the boss. He'll know what we should do."
He ran back to his house and told his wife to make some coffee. "We have a long morning ahead of us."
Jesús poured himself another cup of coffee as he neared the end of his story.
"The boss ... me conoció y me dió respeto, but even he couldn't stop them from arresting me. I spent several weeks in the county jail in Cañon City. My family visited every week, but it was hard on them. When el patrón testified at my trial, that was all the jury had to hear. I was the first Mexicano in Fremont County who wasn't convicted of the crime he had been charged with. The jury was made up of ranchers and other mine owners and a couple of shopkeepers. They appreciated that the boss thought well of me, that he came to the trial and testified that I was a good man, and that in his opinion, whatever I did was necessary. They let me go, calling the killing justified, and I went back to the mine, where I worked until the boss sold the mine to a company from the East. Samuel moved away, and we lost track of him. Ozuna's family kept up the feud with the Móntez family for years. They made threats to avenge Alejandro ... but nothing came of it. And now I have outlived them all."
"It sounds so quick and ugly, yet you reacted in the blink of an eye, quite bravely. But there had to have been a risk to Samuel. In the darkness, with the two men so close to each other, and you slowed by liquor. Why didn't you holler, try to warn Samuel? For our family, it turned out right, but it could easily have gone the other way. What were you thinking when you shot Ozuna?"
My father pursed his lips, rubbed his forehead, and moved his tongue inside his cheek. His face carried the serious look that, of late, he had taken to wearing more often.
"As I said, Louie, men had to act quickly. That's the way those times were. I never liked to talk about the shooting, or the trial, or any of that. The Ozuna family left me alone. It was the rest of the Móntez clan who had to fight with the Ozunas and put up with their insults. Since you ask, I had to shoot. A warning would only have delayed the inevitable. I always understood that I would have to do something very much like what went down that night. We all could see it coming, and so my actions that night were not as impulsive as my boss made them sound in the courtroom. Ozuna and a Móntez had to have a resolution of whatever it was that worked on Ozuna's mind. He had to be stopped and that night, in that place, there was only one way -- with the gun. If I missed and shot Samuel, well, maybe that would have been enough for Ozuna. Alejandro and Samuel were the same; they were both guilty of something that night, and all I could do was stop it. That's what I did."
"Cold-blooded, Dad. But I can see what you mean. At least I think I get it. Sometimes you lose me."
"Ha! The loser gets lost. Pobrecito, all that education and you can't understand the simple stories of your rickety old father. Louie, Louie. What am I going to do with you?"