Article by Quintas Dias: I wrote this several months ago during the height of the tense standoff between Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy and federal agents.
New Mexico is a strange place full of extreme contrasts. It is full of awesomely beautiful country intermixed with sprawling range lands and hard rocky desert. The land in some places is so broken that it looks like an angry giant had picked it up, and then in fury had dashed it hard into the ground. The cataclysmic impact rendered the land into torturous deep chasms, spires, weird-looking hooligans, narrow cuts, featuring towering mesas back dropped by deep blue skies and snow-capped mountains.
The people who live in this land denoted by extremes of topography that sees daytime temperatures soaring to over 110F in the daytime and then plunging down into a bone-chilling freeze at night are an ornery lot. They are very tough and self-reliant, soft-spoken and polite.
Many of them are descendants of American Natives, who claim that their ancestors were star people. Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Navajo warriors roamed, raided, and hunted all over New Mexico. The Spaniards built marvelous frontier communities in some of the harshest lands possible, giving their names to many striking waypoints, such as the malpais or bad country lands around the Trinity site and the White Sands, and the bleak Jornada del Muerto (Dead man’s Journey) trail that saw many tragic deaths from exposure, Indian attacks, and murders. Some are descendants of Spanish explorers, hardy soldiers, and very tough Spanish and Mexican vaqueros (cowboys). Yet, others are descendants of long riding American outlaws of Irish and Scottish descent.
Sure, they have their differences, but by far and large they have learned to look past language, custom, and tradition and get along very well. Anglos do not go to the Mex dances to sit and drink, they get up and dance with the senoritas. They have many commonalities. The first is the tradition that everybody goes about armed. The second is that you never insult a man, his family, or his woman. The third is you never mistreat a horse, dog, or a man’s woman. Finally, it does not matter who starts something, what matters is why, and how it ended.
There have been more range wars, shootings, murders, and instances of sheer barbarism in New Mexico than anywhere else in the United States. New Mexicans will not allow themselves to be abused. They are slow speaking, thoughtful, and very considerate, but God help you if you start to “prod” them.
I went to see my rancher friend, Isaac “Gabe” Montano for his opinion on the gripping Bundy incident over in Nevada. Gabe originates from Spanish stockmen and looks it. He has black eyes, curly black hair, is of medium height, and is fine featured. Gabe, a handsome man is a “chick” magnet. His pretty wife, Nata said so. Gabe runs about 500 head of cattle north in the Vermejo country, near the Colorado line adjacent to Raton, NM. So, we got to toodling (drinking shots of Jose Cuervo alternating with Jim Beam and strong cowboy coffee).
I asked him about Bundy. Gabe shoved his sweat-stained punchbowl shaped Stetson back off of his forehead and frowned. After a moment, and several sips of Joe Crow (Jose Cuervo) Gabe, spoke his piece. “Es una faena de mala fortuna para todos demas (It’s a show with bad fortune for everybody).” He did not comment on who started it, as I knew he would. What mattered was who did what and how it would end. Gabe considered that Bundy might have ancestral rights to the land, especially if his land was part of the Spanish Land Grants, which the Americans had acknowledged to preserve by signing the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Nevada is Spanish for snowbound. Nevada was Spanish territory.
“There is bad and good for every person. Nobody does right all the time.” Gabe said, adding that he pays his grazing fees although it rankles him to do so. When I asked him how he would feel if he had evidence of the Grazing Commission using fees to benefit other ranchers or to drive him out of business. He did not hesitate to say that was a matter for the quarenta-y-cinco or the Tejana as Hispanics call Colt .45s. Gabe took a sip and shot a hand out at me. He said back in the old days ranchers doing a cattle deal or cowboys playing poker or dominoes would pull their irons and slap assorted .45s and .44s on top of a table to discuss a deal or to play a hand. That kept the dealings more or less honest.
He said he did not like it that Bundy was grazing cattle without paying his fees like everyone else in New Mexico. He offered that the matter should be looked at by the courts, as long as the courts were playing fair. He stroked his mustache. “Si, es como asi, las cortes–mejor antes que las armas. (Yes, it’s like this, the courts before the gun).”
I was curious to know if he thought Bundy was a bad man or if he could get justice for his claim. Gabe took another sip and then shook his head. His dark eyes flashed. He remarked that no, Bundy was not bad, but hard and proud. After a moment, he added that as for justice, maybe. I asked him to explain. Justice he said was in the heart of men. Good men gave justice. Bad men did not, and it was as simple as that.
He refilled his glass, then mine, and then shot me a hard glance. The government he said had done Bundy bad, they had killed and had mistreated his animals, had injured his people and women without justification. That he said made him favor Bundy’s cause regardless who had started it. Finally, I asked him how he would handle and end it. Gabe reached down to a badly scarred saddlebag, opened it and retrieved a worn but mechanically perfect old Colt Bisley Model with a five and a half inch barrel. The shooter had belonged to his grandfather, Eulegio.
He slapped the Colt down rather hard on top of the mesquite table and said in a soft voice that for insulting him, mistreating and killing his animals, and assaulting his women, the government men were acting like bandidos. There was only one-way to deal with bandits…the way of the gun. Then he put the old shooter away, nodded at me, and said goodnight leaving me to consider that maybe the old ways were still good ones to use when the government acts like bandits.
NB: Like with many New Mexicans, there is no pretense with Gabe. He tells it as he sees it and if you don’t like it, then you can go dance with the devil.
Posted with permission.