He had no idea at all how he’d gotten to be so old. Maybe he just lucked out. It sure wasn’t skill or good looks. He’d never expected to see the backside of forty and here he was over fifty, kinda reaching for sixty. Of course, he had no home, no family, no one to miss him if he did die, so probably it was Fate playing her nasty little games with people’s lives.
Not that it was too hard to be his age. He could still shoot in the distance pretty accurately, so he didn’t go hungry — he just couldn’t read a newspaper anymore, but there were hardly any newspapers out on the frontier anyway. His horse worried him a little bit. He’d had a lot of them over the years and this was the best one yet, but it was aging, too. “We just ain’t machines, are we?” he asked the horse, who stumbled a bit over a bush he would have taken in stride only a year or so ago. He didn’t lift his legs so high anymore.
The man’s chief problem was his eyesight, darkening and blurring, but the horse could see well enough, so as long as he didn’t push the animal too hard, he could pick their way along without any problem. It’s just that the man didn’t have the peripheral vision he once had, so he didn’t see what might be creeping up on him.
Almost as though he had summoned it, something was approaching. A smaller animal than a horse, he judged from the sound of fast light hooves. A deer or antelope wouldn’t be approaching. It must be someone on a small animal — a burro maybe. He stopped to wait and listen. There was nothing wrong with his ears. He just didn’t want to look.
The little rider came pattering along until he was there and a heehaw from the burro confirmed its species. The man’s horse shook his head hard and blew snot out his nose to show he wasn’t very happy about it. Now, who was on this unwelcome burro? He still didn’t want to look but could hear feet thumping on the sides of the beast to make him speed up. He had the idea that the burro didn’t like the feet but just ignored them and went only as fast as he thought was necessary.
“Ola, vaquero!” came a high Mexican-inflected voice. It must be a boy. He turned his head to look. At first all he could see was the top of a sombrero, but then the hat brim tilted up and a young brown face with bright eyes was squinting up at him.
“Howdy,” he answered, tight-lipped, which earned him a big white grin in return.
“Ustedes go this way?” the face inquired, including the horse in what had to be a rhetorical question since the answer was obvious.
“Se llamo Gomez!”
“Oh.” Long pause.
The boy waited for a name in return, gave it up, shrugged his bony little shoulders under his muslin shirt, and laughed a little. “I go with you, Vaquero,” he announced, and from then on that was the man’s name as far as Gomez was concerned. He gestured grandly at his burro, whose ears were back. “This here is Paquito!”
They went on in silence except for the rhythm of hooves, the creak of leather, the small jingle of metal, until Gomez began to whistle. Vaquero looked annoyed, but his horse liked it. The concert whiled away the hours and pretty soon Vaquero mellowed a little and fished out his harmonica from his vest pocket, which caused Gomez to smile very broadly in between whistling. He began a rhythm by slapping his thigh.
When the sun was sliding down fast, Vaquero guided them off the path down into an arroyo with a little stream glinting at the bottom. He started a fire while Gomez gathered wood, and was pleased to see that the boy was a good judge of what would burn brightly and relatively smokeless. Each dug around in his belongings to find what to contribute. Vaquero had remnants of slab bacon. Gomez, of course, had beans that had been softening in a stoneware jar along with some chilis. Fried together in Vaquero’s cast iron pan, one of his few luxuries, they made a pretty fine supper. They lay back by the embers, feeling good.
“Where you from, Gomez?”
“Everyplace. I travel. Me and Paquito go everywhere.”
“Where are your people?
“I alone survive.” He held his small brown feet in their sandals out towards the last of the fire.
Vaquero thought that over for a long time. “Me, too,” he finally said. The boy smiled so hard his face nearly split. The animals didn’t need to be tethered and searched among the brush for grass.
“Now we have found each other,” said the boy, which made Vaquero itch. He had learned to resist any kind of attachment or commitment. They always went bad in the end. The better they were, the more they hurt in the end. But somehow, this boy was so lightweight, so undemanding, that he couldn’t find the energy or motivation to throw him off. It’s not that he invited Gomez to be his little buddy, but that he didn’t lift a hand to prevent him, and after a while he got used to him.
They were headed north and west, not quite in the foothills and came to part of the prairie that had had a lot of rain late in the spring so that there was plenty of grass. Deer were everywhere, which was great for eating. Food is important for happy travel. But they had not really thought about the others who like to eat deer.
Gomez and Paquito had fallen behind, not worried about catching up because by this time Vaquero would stop and wait after a while. So they didn’t see the cougar drop onto Vaquero and his horse, breaking the horse’s neck and hurting Vaquero badly before he managed to stick his knife into it. He lost blood before Gomez got there, pounding madly on Paquito’s sides when he saw both man and horse on the ground. Vaquero was unconscious for a few days.
When he woke up, he had trouble focusing and was slow to realize what he was looking at: the hides of both horse and cougar staked out and drying while their meat dried on racks over smoky sage fires. Gomez was right there with whiskey in coffee, the only medicines they had. Softened and weakened, Vaquero broke. He sobbed in Gomez’ young arms for a while.
The boy was calm, holding the big man hard against his skinny little chest and rocking him a bit. When Vaquero quieted, Gomez joked, “What do you call a Vaquero without a horse?” The man shook his head. “Mi amigo!” Gomez voice was joyful and triumphant.
Vaquero groaned. “You skinned out my horse?”
“He would want to help you. He will make a good jacket some day. And I found a patch of wild onions so he is good eating, too.” His voice softened. “Now he is part of us.”
They stayed until the man was able to ride. The horse’s saddle, the remaining dry meat and the rawhides were loaded on Paquito with the man, though the burro’s ears were back and he complained loudly. Gomez had cut himself a walking staff and went alongside. “Vamos con Dios!” he cried out happily, his sandals scuffling in the dust as he threw in a few dance steps with his walking. Tipping his sombrero back, he grinned up at Vaquero. “We will buy a new horse at the next place! A cougar hide makes a fine saddle blanket!”
Pretty soon Gomez was whistling and Vaquero fished his harmonica out of his vest pocket. Paquito’s contribution to the concert was rude.