1886 Freedom Figure: A short story

Audio of story here.

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by Pam Backlund

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 on route to San Angelo, Texas where he had business with land management. But the stage and accompanying wagon of some of his personal effects was 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 inherited acreage near a red arroyo of San Angelo.  He of recent felt the need for its inspection.  The only reason why 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.

When the transportation finally arrived, Henry verbally clobbered James.

“You stupid butler. I’ve been ready to travel for ages.”

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.

James was writing in his journal as 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, he will,” responded the driver as he dismounted the stage and 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’s time, they were back to inching their way to San Angelo…the horses as compliant as puppets. 

Henry nodded-off back to sleep, so 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 is frowned upon.”  James wrote.

Henry’s precious feather

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 “The Madonna with Baby Jesus” on it.  He was an atheist, but his protected 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.  It wasn’t until the hottest part of the late day that a brawl began on Concho Avenue. 

A fight was in progress. The scuffle began as Manny (an aging short Mexican) 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, 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.  An elderly man going down didn’t go un-noticed, 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.  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 moral as peppermint.

The law hollered for the scramble to end, but the men continued to bloody each other’s noses and blacken 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. He wore his baggiest clothes since he was swollen from head to toe.  He was telling James of his day’s agenda at the shanty town.

“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 hovered over a large display of vegetables that disguised themselves as human heads.  Pumpkins, squash, gourds and melons were picked before the Latinos’ departure from their previous seven shanty towns and were in the shade of a hackberry tree on clean, swept ground.  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 something’ 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

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 something metal when they entered the bag.  The riders felt they’d done their good deed of the day.

But the mid-day bright sunshine in the huge rough neighborhood made the riders apologetic of the miserable atmosphere.  They saw makeshift houses of crates and discarded metal.   They saw 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 to do.  There was no other land available close enough (to their city and fort jobs) on which they could squat.

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 that he 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 of this blended community (already ousted by seven different land owners) be feasible?”

Just three months prior in Mexico, it took 5000 soldiers to capture Geronimo, 24 warriors and their women and children.  Henry made a rough guestimate that he was dealing with hundreds of displaced and angry Mexicans.  On the contrary, he and his ruffians numbered at six.  Seven if you counted James, who was a coward.

“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.

Then Henry was asked to be a judge in the ‘vegetable human heads’ contest. 

Vegetable art contest

Manny seemed to be the spokesperson for the clans.  He and Henry shared a modest meal after the contest and were settling in for the evening.  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.  After about 5 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 the cloth bag, retrieving nothing as a loud explosion shook the ground and air.  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 island was easy target practice on this 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.

Six inch promotional statue for fundraising the construction of the pedestal. Cost $1 in 1886

Before Henry left, Manny pulled from his own tattered bag a metal treasure he’d received in a trade for a catering job. Before the man had traded it to Manny, the customer had paid $1 to the pedestal committee of New York.  He then had received the statue as a complimentary gift.  Not the Virgin Mary, but instead it was a six inch symbol of another lady.  It was a freedom figure called the Lady Liberty.  Henry was honored when Manny gave it to him.

Epilogue:

The Mexicans 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 his feather of Madonna and Manny’s figure.  He saluted 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.    

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