Waiting for Justice

by Judy Veris-Decker

Dust rising in the distance caught Manuel’s eye. He suspected the riders were headed his way. He’d seen them before. They were linesmen, riding the fences of the large adjacent ranch, allegedly checking for broken wire and lost stock. That was not the real reason for their visits. It was 1870. The Colorado land grab was in full swing as ranchers were greedily acquiring every bit of land they could to graze their cattle. Some took the land whether it was available or not, through the courts or with violence.

He was one of the small landowners in western Las Animas County and had lived and worked local ranches for over sixty years. He considered himself a Viejo now, an old man. As a youngster, he was befriended and hired by a local rancher, who eventually offered him corner forty acres in exchange for working on his ranch. But now, his rancher friend was dead, and Manuel was visited often by these men riding for the brand.
Sitting high on their horses and looking down on him, they accused Manuel of rustling their boss’s cattle. “No, Senores,” he always replied, squinting his eyes in annoyance, “I do not want your cattle. They would ruin the sweet water in my spring.” Waving his arm expansively, he told them, “I have my garden, and my chickens.” Then he would raise his ever-present rifle, and say, “I hunt for other meat in the woods. Your cattle are there, to the west. Go look for them.” He had little patience for these men who were sent to harass him. He was a Viejo, but he was still able to tend his homestead and hunt when he needed to. In his spare time, he played his guitar. The locals loved his music, because it was for everyone. He sang songs of joy, of sorrow, and of peace. He wanted to live the rest of his life without trouble on this plot of land he had worked for. He wasn’t looking for a fight.

One morning, the riders rode up again, to accuse Manuel of stealing their boss’s stock. It was another attempt to scare him off the land, and he knew it was the rancher who shared his fence line sending the riders to intimidate him. They left Manuel with a bitter warning: “We’ll be back, old man. Since you won’t do it the easy way, we’ll do it the hard way!” He could hear their hoots and laughter as they spurred their horses and galloped away.

Manuel scowled as he watched the menacing gang disappear over the distant horizon. When they returned, it would be with fiery torches to burn him out, to “fry him like an egg,” as they so often threatened. He thought about the ancient rock shelter tucked high into the cliff at the eastern edge of his property. That was a safe hiding place for the guitar. But not for him. He would go back to protect his homestead. The outcome of that battle was uncertain.

The steep rocky trail up to the hiding place in the cliff seemed long. Reaching it, he sat on the dirt floor to rest with the guitar. Soon his fingers were on the strings, playing one last beautiful song. As he strummed, he looked out over the rocks to the grass and cottonwoods that lined the bottom land of the canyon. Sixty years of memories mingled with his music. He watched the sun drop to the west, and hover over the mountains. It would be dark soon.

Absently he picked up a piece of broken grey flint and fingered its smooth surface, running his thumb over the edge, noting that it was still sharp. It appeared to be the tip of an arrowhead left by the ancient ones who had camped there, centuries earlier. He worried it with his gnarled fingers a bit more, enjoying the waxy texture of it. Tossing the point back to its resting place he sadly pulled off his battered straw hat and serape. On his knees, he wrapped his cherished guitar in the worn garment, and laid it tenderly in the shallow hole he had scooped out. It was not very deep because the dirt floor was so hard. He gathered slender flat rocks and laid them over it as a final cover. Murmuring a short prayer, he whispered good-bye. He pulled his hat low over his eyes and trudged down the hill to his homestead. He was weary of all the fighting, but he would be ready. He knew what he had to do.

They attacked him in the night, whooping, hollering, and brandishing flaming pine knot torches.
The old sheep herder’s shack that Manuel lived in was like a tinderbox when they lit it. Soon it was engulfed in flames. From behind a towering cottonwood tree, Manuel ran out into the thick black smoke. He aimed his rifle at the raiders and opened fire. One of the cowboys fell from his saddle. More shots rang out, and Manuel stumbled and collapsed, bleeding heavily from a chest wound, the rifle still clutched in his hand. As the last of his blood seeped into the welcoming earth, the fire crackled on intensely, consuming his home and the last of his possessions
Decades later, a young girl of fourteen years was hiking in the hills west of Trinidad. While exploring a sandstone cliff, she happened upon a narrow rock outcropping. The day was hot and dry, a shady spot invited her toward the back of the shallow rock shelter. After poking carefully around the rocks with a stick, she decided the rattlesnakes were elsewhere, it was safe. She brushed away the bigger pieces of sandstone gravel, and plopped down in the cool dirt. Sipping from her water bottle, she gazed out over what used to be pasture. Early summer rains had nourished the grasses. She could smell the tang of sage and pine on the breeze that rustled through the tall trees. This was considered “green space” now, this housing development where she lived with her family. How had the land been used before all the houses were built in the beautiful canyon? Who were the people who had once lived and worked here?

Stick in hand, the girl explored the overhang a little more. Sometimes on her hikes she found pieces of flint, or a broken arrowhead. She could see a few grey chips laying around. This spot might show her something interesting. At the very back of the shelter, the corner of a faded raggedy blanket showed through the sandy floor among the rocks. “Look for something that doesn’t belong,” her grandfather’s words were in her head as if he were with her on this hike. He had the flint-eye, and always found flint. She rarely did.

This time she had found something special. Squatting down on one knee she lifted and set aside the rocks that sheltered the treasure wrapped in the dirty striped blanket in the shallow hole. Her heart was pounding in her ears. She was still vigilant for the buzz of a cranky rattler. A barely audible “Oh!” escaped her lips as she lifted away the tattered edges to reveal the guitar someone had taken great pains to conceal. Dirty and dried out with wisps for strings, it was intact, but badly weathered even in its protected pit.

She was stunned by this find, and took a moment to look more closely at her surroundings. How did this old guitar get here? And why was it hidden? Wouldn’t her grandfather be surprised! She carefully recovered the guitar in its serape shroud, and decided not to replace the rocks. “I’ll be back,” she promised the guitar, “and I’ll bring Grandfather.” She headed for home.


Read Part 2 – Grandfather Here.

See more blog posts

Related Articles

Artist Talk on Art – October 15th, Artist Dawn Howkinson Siebel will lead a discussion on her exhibit, better angels, the firefighters of 9/11

Artist Talk on Art  Public Program, Saturday, October 15th, 2 p.m. at MoF. Artist Dawn Howkinson Siebel will lead a discussion on her exhibit, better angels, the firefighters of 9/11. 600 Main Street, Walsenburg, CO. About Better Angels: Dawn Howkinson Siebel’s exhibit, Better Angels consists of paintings that depict the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11. Each painting is a portrait of these fallen firefighters on a 6” x 4” burned block of Baltic Birch. The compositions are in black, white, and raw umber. The complete work is the totality of all portraits in seven rows of 49 columns that span 48 inches by 21 feet. This exhibit has traveled around the country. To learn more visit betterangels911.com  or museumoffriends.org  Light refreshments will be served. This exhibit

Read More »