This story is read aloud at: https://youtu.be/7Z5SxSL40QI
Synopsis: Mr. Wealthy Landowner makes an important decision about intimidated squatters.
Since anything said with a Spanish accent could be used against you in 1886, bilingual Henry spoke perfect English in public. He was playing solitaire in the ballroom of the Magnolia Hotel in Seguin, Texas. Henry was about to be en route to San Angelo, Texas, where he had business with land management. But the stage and accompanying wagon carrying some of his personal effects were horribly late. It had rained overnight, and mud made an on-time stage as rare as a blue rose.
Henry was a ridiculously wealthy New Yorker who had inherited acreage near a red arroyo of San Angelo. He of late felt the need for its inspection. The only reason he didn’t just sell the land upon coming into it was because he was insatiably greedy. If he could retain the property and make more money than its current worth, he would. He would determine the land’s fate soon, then back to New York he would go.
James, his traveling butler, had left him at the hotel temporarily to check on the stage’s tardiness.
“You stupid butler, I’ve been ready to travel for ages.” When the transportation finally arrived, Henry verbally clobbered James.
James retorted, “It’s not my fault it rained last night!”
“I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you! Now let’s get on with this trip,” shouted Henry.
Later, James was writing in his journal and Henry was napping when the stage came to an unexpected halt. Abruptly awakened, Henry scolded the driver, “What’s wrong, stupid?”
“Apparently if a horse can get hurt, it will,” responded the driver, as he dismounted the stage. He checked the right front shoe of the limping horse.
“Use the nippers, and let’s get this show on the road!” shouted Henry.
There was some eye-rolling amongst the hired hands. “I’m not bossy, I just know what you should be doing,” said Henry from inside the coach. He was always repulsed with the help.
Instead of the nippers, the man used a rasp to bevel a splitting hoof. They were about to be on their way again when Henry just couldn’t contain himself. “I’m never wrong. There are just different levels of right,” he said.
All of the employees nodded in pseudo-respect as they maintained the animals. In a half hour, they were back to inching their way to San Angelo—the horses as compliant as puppets.
Because Henry went back to sleep, James resumed journaling. I like the sound of Henry not talking, he wrote. And he likes it when I’m silent, too—but only because he thinks that I’m listening. Oh, the stress of that man. Too bad punching Henry would be frowned upon.
Meanwhile, Henry dreamt of the specter of the Virgin Mary he’d seen at the Magnolia Hotel the previous night. The shadows had played tricks on his mind, as the wall had no apparition that morning. Nevertheless, Henry was a bit anxious. He secretly owned an unusual feather with the Madonna and baby Jesus on it. He was an atheist, but his protective feather was very important to him.
When arriving at their destination, the Nimitz Hotel of San Angelo, Henry’s crew was not greeted with ease. Instead, there was a lot of tension in the air. And during the hottest part of the late day, a brawl began on Concho Avenue.
The scuffle began as Manny (an aging, short Mexican man) performed a maneuver on a choking Mexican friend. The freed morsel flew into the face of a passing Anglo. Anyway, that was the Mexicans’ story. The Anglos didn’t see it that way. They thought it was a free-for-all food fight with the Mexican tamale vendor as the scapegoat. But what started out as dinner slinging soon became fists hitting flesh like hammers on nails.
Henry and James stepped out of the hotel to see a ruckus—which was growing by the second. It was Anglos versus Mexicans in what was probably, the town’s biggest riot since the days of the Comanches.
James said, “This fight isn’t any of our business.”
Henry countered, “I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong. I’m ready to fight.”
James replied, “Be careful when you follow the masses—sometimes the “M” is silent.”
“It looks like fun, and I also don’t care what you think—so it works out,” Henry held, and then added, “But due to personal reasons, I won’t be holding myself accountable for my actions.”
So Henry barreled into the mob. He pulverized a Mexican and then crippled an Anglo. He was agile as he latched onto two opposing men and smashed their heads together. Then he invaded an empty wagon and pounced down into another group of jerks.
Several men, both Anglos and Mexicans, pressed forward into the crowd, as standing by during a good fight wasn’t on their dance cards. A left assault to Manny collapsed him. This elderly man going down didn’t go unnoticed, but everyone mauled each other anyway.
Manny’s relatives snagged him to safety somehow and handed him his comforting statue. All the while the foray continued.
For being a rich guy, Henry didn’t fall prone to the attacks as James had assumed that he would. At one point, Henry slugged a man so hard that the injured bolted towards his horse and loped off into the sunset.
All this was happening as James was just standing around being as benign as peppermint.
The law hollered for the scramble to end, but the men continued to bloody each other’s noses and blacken each other’s eyes.
Finally the sheriff and deputies opened fire at the sky, which caused most men to sprint or cower to safety.
“What the hell is going on here?” bellowed the sheriff.
It was a dumb question to ask, since, for several weeks, the Mexican squatters were being evicted by seven landowners. With no place to settle their families and no money to escape, the tension was as thick as the scrubby mesquite. The Anglos had gotten their attention, but the bushwhacked Mexicans had no choice but to rebel.
With the fight over, the Mexicans were expelled to the outskirts of town, and Henry was seen by the overworked doctor. After recuperating overnight, Henry was ready to meet the squatters on his land and expel them, too. He wore his baggiest clothes, since he was swollen from head to toe. He was telling James of his day’s agenda at the shantytown.
“Your secrets are safe with me—I wasn’t even listening,” responded the butler.
Traveling with his henchmen and James, Henry came upon his parcel of land. At the red arroyo, flies were sometimes the first indication that something had died. But this early July day, the flies were hovering over a large display of vegetables that had disguised themselves as human heads. Pumpkins, squash, gourds, and melons were picked before the Latinos’ departure from their previous seven shantytowns and were now resting in the shade of a hackberry tree. Clearly the community was gearing up for a contest of sorts—to ease their melancholy.
They never could have known of Henry’s soft spot. You see, Henry’s brain had a bias, favoring seeing signs and portents, rather than nothing—in ordinary things. His brain loved to jump to a pattern that made sense of a situation; hence, his feather with the Madonna image.
“Wow, what a wonderful set-up you have here,” he said to no one in particular. The peasants had seen his kind before—flattery was an insult in gift wrapping. They knew what he was up to.
Manny, yesterday beat to smithereens, voiced, “Spare some change, please?” to Henry and his cohorts. Some of them no doubt had been the source of his troubles the day before. Manny had a small cloth bag. The donated shiny, new coins clanked on his metal statue when they entered the bag. The riders felt they’d done their good deed for the day.
But the midday sunshine in the rough neighborhood made the riders apologetic of the miserable atmosphere. They saw makeshift houses of crates and discarded metal—and small fires cooking tortillas and beans. Scantily dressed munchkins darted about, afraid of the strangers. Women gathered their babies, and men resumed their combative posture from the preceding day.
These people had the inner strength to eat the same food day after day—and be grateful for it. They could take criticism and blame without resentment. But something they could not change about their life was the poor, lower class into which they’d been squeezed.
They did not and would not have the endurance to move their ailing families again. And they were sure that was exactly what Henry intended for them to do. There was no other land on which they could squat available close enough to their city and fort jobs.
Some brilliant Mexican hidden, from Henry shouted in Spanish, “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.”
Alarmed eyes widened.
Little did the man know that Henry was bilingual and understood every word. Henry could see that he had to make a difficult compromise in order to succeed.
But would the land have much monetary value if I sold it? he thought. Would a fight with this blended community, already ousted by seven different landowners, be feasible?
Just three months prior in Mexico, it took five thousand soldiers to capture Geronimo, twenty-four warriors, and their women and children. Henry made a rough estimate that he was dealing with hundreds of displaced and angry Mexicans. He and his ruffians numbered six—seven if you counted cowardly James.
“Just because I don’t care, doesn’t mean I don’t understand,” replied Henry.
If it was possible, the Mexican men stood even taller. “We just can’t move again,” Manny said in Spanish.
Breaking the tension, Henry was then asked to be a judge in the vegetable human heads contest.
Manny and Henry shared a modest meal after the contest and were settling in for the evening. Manny seemed to be the spokesperson for the clans.
It was July Fourth, and many Anglo families had gone to Lone Wolf for fireworks. It was also customary to blow up stumps on the holiday. The dogs of the township were due for some anxiety.
When it was nearly dark, Henry dug out of his pocket a deck of cards. He thought he’d teach his new friend Manny the game of solitaire. Five minutes into the game, a jack of clubs showed up in the dealer deck. Henry needed a red jack to put below a queen of spades. “I don’t understand,” Manny remarked, as Henry drew another card.
“It was the wrong color,” said Henry.
“Just like my people and I are the wrong color,” he countered.
Henry’s face collapsed as if a pricked balloon.
Manny’s hand went into and out of the cloth bag, retrieving nothing—as a loud explosion shook the ground and air. Was there a pistol in there, he thought.
Apparently one of the stumps being removed was on the edge of Henry’s land. Screams ensued as some bloodied women and children came running from the north sector. The Anglos had chosen that stump with a vendetta in mind.
Manny was silent—standing before Henry as a little statuesque figure—yet internally he was screaming for freedom.
“Please sir, forget the disarrayed cards and promise me you won’t make us move.” The civility had changed to terror in Manny’s voice. “No one of your figure has ever become poor by giving. And once you need less, you will have more,” he concluded.
Another blast of dynamite boomed in the further distance. It was as if the neighboring land owners had decided that the Mexican island was easy target practice on the festive night.
Henry melted as if Manny’s statements were a lame child’s only wish. He reached in his own bag with the sacred feather and pulled out some paper to make some legal statements about the property. He would finalize the transactions at the Tom Green County Courthouse in coming weeks.
All the while, explosions kept the dogs running wild as the night dragged on.
Before Henry left, Manny pulled from his own tattered bag a metal treasure he’d received in a trade for a catering job.
Not the Virgin Mary as some might have suspected—but a six-inch symbol of another lady.
It was a freedom figure called Lady Liberty.
Henry was honored when Manny gave it to him.
Epilogue to 1886 Freedom Figure:
The Mexican people received surveyed lots to call their own from Henry.
In October, Henry returned to New York.
His ship from Galveston passed the dedication of the brand-new Statue of Liberty.
Though still an atheist, he continued to tightly grip the bag containing both his feather of Madonna and Manny’s figure.
While on his ship, near her island, he saluted the majestic Lady Liberty.
But he knew in his heart that it would take many decades (maybe even centuries) for the filth of racism to diminish everywhere.