A Son of Spain
MORE than a century ago, one of the great Spanish galleons, sailing from the Philippines to Mexico, was blown out of her course, and, while skirting the coast of Alta California, ran on a sunken rock. A brown stallion, belonging to a wealthy Spanish general, broke from his stall the moment the vessel struck, sprang into the breakers, and swam ashore. After the galleon was got off and repaired, a boat’s crew was sent to recover the wild and beautiful creature ; but he had climbed the high cliffs, and, rejoicing in his new freedom, was not to be approached. In the afternoon, as the galleon sailed away, the horse ran down to the beach from the mountains, and stood there, watching it out of sight. Then he went back to his wilderness, his leagues of wild oats, and his mountain springs.
In a few months, the herdsmen of Paso Robles, twenty-five miles inland, on the head waters of the Salinas, began to tell stories of a wonderful horse that led a band of strays from the [Mission herds. No mustang in all the land could compare with him for beauty and swiftness. He was not large, but finely built; he had rare fire and courage ; he was dark brown, with a white crescent in the forehead; for months no one knew whence he had come. At last, a traveler from San Juan Capistrano, far south on the San Diego coast, told the simple Paso Robles folk of the great galleon that had sailed into San Diego Bay for repairs, whose captain had said that not for a silver crucifix would he have lost the best horse ever bred in the stable of the viceroy of the Philippines.
As the tradition further runs, one of the Spanish padres of San Miguel, who had been a soldier in his youth, happened to be crossing the Naciemiento, and saw the famous horse on the cliff, looking down. The priest gazed at the wild creature, and his eyes glowed, as he said, “ He is a son of old Spain ; he is of the best blood of the Moors.”
It was 1869, almost a hundred years after the escape of the brave brown horse, that a young man from northern California, named Van Dyke, was teaching school in San Luis Obispo, near the coast. An American rancher, John Hardy, owned several hundred mustangs, which were considered worth five or ten dollars apiece. But he had a grand saddle horse, a dark brown animal, with very soft, silky hair, small, fine head, large, dark eyes, sloping hips and shoulders, and broad, deep chest, — a horse that was in every way striking and full of power. Van Dyke, who loved a good horse, lost no time in asking Hardy about his El Ray.
“He is,” said Hardy, “of a different breed from the mustangs. He comes, they say, from some Spanish officer’s horse that got ashore from a ship, in the old Mission days. There are two or three such horses in these hills, but they are hard to find. If a Mexican gets hold of one, he never parts with it, for love or money.”
“ Then I want another El Rey,” was Van Dyke’s reply.
“ There’s an old Missourian back in the hills, who has a band of mustangs that he bought from an estate that was being settled a few years ago. I have heard there is a half-brother of El Rev in that band. You might go and see ; perhaps you can buy him, bring him to the coast, and gev him broken to the saddle. There ’s no such horse anywhere else.”
Van Dyke found the Missourian, and opened negotiations. Yes, he had horses, if anybody wanted one. Some he would not sell for less than fifty dollars, but most of them were only or’nary, — say five-dollar mustangs. His usual way was to give a man his pick for ten dollars ; but bein’ as Van Dyke was a schoolteacher, and liable to have his pockets full of money, he would have to pay fifteen.
The bargain was made, with some collateral agreements, and the money was paid down. It was agreed that the mustangs, about six hundred in number, were to be driven into the large corral. Van Dyke and the Missourian were to stand outside, on the stump of a white oak. A Mexican vaquero sat on a mustang inside the corral, ready to throw his lasso over the horse pointed out by Van Dyke. If the man missed, or caught the wrong horse, Van Dyke was to go into the corral and point out his choice again ; and if he changed it his money was to be forfeited.
The animals, three fourths of them as unbroken as when they were foaled, came tearing down the gullies, crashing through the scrub oak and second growth of pine, and into the open pasture lands. Once or twice they again escaped to the hills ; but in an hour they were forced to the entrance in the long, high fences that converged at the gate of the corral, and after that they were thrust rapidly forward by the vaqueros. It became evident to Van Dyke that his only choice was to be a snap shot at long range.
The horses began to enter on a wild gallop, somewhat checked by the gate. They were of all colors, — “ pintos,” whites, creams, yellows, bays, blacks, and dozens of browns. Away down the moving mass, Van Dyke watched the tossing heads and flowing manes, rolling up like the waves of a sea. The old Missourian stood beside him. with a grim smile on his heavy face.
“ Ef you don’t get a better horse than the last fellow did, you ’ll do some swearing,” he remarked. " But it’s all a gamble. Ef you get my best colt, it’s all right.”
Several minutes passed in silence, as the horses tore past, four or live abreast. Then the band broke, and half of them, headed by a tall, fierce colt, whose long mane flew high in the air, made a desperate endeavor to break the cordon of vaqueros. Some of the horses leaped in the air, and tried to take the high fences of oak and pine logs ; but at last they were headed once more for the corral. It was a fortunate break, for Van Dyke had his eyes on the leader. Again the torrent rolled past, and leading it, with wild eyes, flaming nostrils, head thrown high in the air, the very counterpart of El Rey came thundering down the open track.
“ There ! ” cried Van Dyke, suddenly, to the Mexican. “ Take that brown colt in the lead. That is my horse! ”
The Mexican gave one look of surprise ; then his lasso whistled forth, but it fell harmlessly. The horse ran into the corral and mingled with the others. He moved about swiftly and wildly, trying the high corral with his shoulders. He left a tumult after him, like the foam track behind a ship. The old Missourian shook his head.
“Never knew that Mexican to miss a throw like that,” he said. “ Now find that horse again.”
“ You know the horse,” replied Van Dyke. " Tell your man to go and bring him. You can see him from here, trying to break down your corral.”
“ That’s a fact; he’s your horse. Here, Pedro, get us that wild brown horse you was tellin’ me you wanted to buy. This fellow has picked him out. I ’ll give you another one.”
The Mexican’s face was without expression, as he rode slowly into the corral and lassoed the horse. He drew him up to the gate, and sat there waiting while Van Dyke looked him over. It was the horse he had chosen, and one of the other vaqueros took him to Hardy’s ranch that night, where Hardy himself brought out his best bottle of native California wine, “ Cucuniongo, vintage of 1827,”and the colt was christened “ El Cid.”
In a short time El Cid became Van Dyke’s daily companion. He was the brightest, bravest horse that ever a rider knew, and he had a sort of thrilling audacity that was at times magnificent. Hardy used to say, “ That horse would fling himself into the ocean or against a stone wall, if you put him at it and he thought you expected him to go ahead.”
Van Dyke would add that El Cid would often tear down the rails from a fence, one by one, with his teeth, until he could jump the fence; and once, when lost on the head waters of the Naciemiento, the horse helped his master break a way through the dense chaparral for half a mile to the river. He threw his whole weight into the tops, and tore them down, though he came out bruised and bleeding. Many a time master and horse slept on the hillside, the end of the long stake rope in Van Dyke’s hand ; El Cid grazing for a time, then creeping up and lying down beside him.
The horse began to be known along the Coast Range for fifty miles. Men came to see him, and asked what he was worth; they made offers for his use “ just to run a few races with.” Twice El Cid had beaten El Rey in a half-mile run on the beach, and El Rey had been held to be the fastest horse from Cambria south to the Arroyo Grande. Hardy grumbled, “ Make the distance five miles, and El Rey will come out ahead.” But Van Dyke, though he thought he knew better, felt that El Cid ought not to be made to strain his utmost powers except on some worthier issue.
Winter came, and Van Dyke, the school-teacher at the Summit, took another school, at Piedras Blancas, a little fishing village at the base of a high mountain projecting into the Pacific. It had rained for weeks, and all the streams were swollen, the roadways being overflowed in many places. One Friday afternoon, he had closed school, and started for the cabin where he lived, when Mr. Withrow, the Methodist minister, came hurriedly up the muddy footpath.
“ The lighthouse keeper’s wife is dying. She wants to see her eldest son, who is on his ranch at Estero Bay. The men all declare it is impossible to get through, but she says she will try to live till he comes, and she knows you can bring him. I think she wants to have her husband forgive her son before she dies. She says you know all the details.”
“ Yes,” said Van Dyke, “ I know all about it. I promised her that I would help when the time came. It is a very important matter, and her son must be brought. Twenty-five miles is a hard pull such weather, but El Cid can do it.”
The school-teacher ran to the bars of the field and called El Cid from the hill pasture under the Monterey pines. For a week he had not been ridden, but he had had his daily grain and grooming, and was in perfect condition. He held up his head joyously to the bridle, and in a moment more horse and rider were off down the broken highway. The San Simeon River was over its banks ; they had to swim for a hundred yards. The Toro was boiling ; they landed half a mile below the crossing. At El Leon Rocks there had been a landslide ; they tore down the fences, and made their way across several marshes and fields to the stage-road again. At Cayucas, the sea had broken in across the bar and swept away the old ford; so here was a longer, more dangerous swim through rolling breakers. Between these places the road was torn up into chasms ; but wherever it was possible El Cid went at a wild gallop.
Three hours from the time Van Dyke left Piedras Blancas, he rode up to the old adobe on Estero Bay, where the lighthouse keeper’s son lived. Two hours counted for the distance ; one hour for the river crossings. The young man saddled his best horse and started ; but he could not cross the Cayucas till the next morning, and even then it took him six hours to reach Piedras. But he was in time, and the long gallop was not useless.
In a few weeks Van Dyke found that El Cid had become famous in that wild mountain land by the Pacific. The herdsmen along the Naciemiento told his story; the stage-drivers on the Cambria line pointed out the rocky ridges down which the horse had run at full speed, the deep adobe wallows through which he had plunged, and the flood marks on the banks of the Toro, San Simeon, and at Cayucas. The old legends about his ancestor, the “ son of Spain,” were reVived, and repeated in camp and log-cabin, till the quick-silverminers of Josephina, the bear-hunters of the Santa Lucias, and the bull-fighters of Paso Robles knew them by heart. Men said that El Cid was the image of the old horse of the legends, — the same in color and form, with the same white crescent, the same indomitable courage.
Van Dyke, when he returned to Piedras Blancas, seemed to be somewhat nervous about El Cid. His is old friend, Hardy, had sold his farm and gone on a gold-mining expedition to Arizona, so there was no one to whom he could talk freely. But his thoughts were continually of a Mexican he had seen three times, — always with the same sullen, brooding face : once when El Cid was caught; once as the horse, a little tired, but still full of fire, galloped up to the Cayucas adobe ; and once, a month or two later, as he rode past the door of a little Mexican fonda, in a small town four or five miles from Piedras Blancas.
In fact, the feelings that all Mexicans alike showed when they saw El Cid surprised and troubled Van Dyke. Hardy had told him that the most curious part of the old tradition was the form it had at last taken among the Mexican herdsmen of the San Luis Obispo hills. The story went among them that the ancestor of El Cid was more than mortal; that he was seen swimming ashore, in the midst of the fiercest storm that ever broke along that coast; and that no one ever caught a glimpse of him except when the waves ran high and the winds were at their wildest.
Further, as Van Dyke discovered, a new legend was added to this. The Mexicans said that no harm could come from torrent, or quicksand, or sea to the man who rode a horse in whose veins that blood flowed. It was when El Cid carried Van Dyke so well through the breakers at Cayucas that the legend sprang into life, all over the mountain land for a hundred miles, from Sur to Gavilan. But the Mexicans had their own name for him. in all the stories. He was never El Cid to them, but always Hijo del Mar — the Son of the Sea.
Slowly filtering through many obstacles, like drops of water following secret channels to springs at the base of Shasta, dim warnings came to Van Dyke, as he began his last month of school. Never anything definite: now a vague rumor that Mexican horsethieves from Chihuahua were in the San Luis mountains ; now a story that a drunken Indian had been heard to say that the " Son of the Sea” belonged by right to a Mexican.
Van Dyke built a log stable adjoining the end of the house where he boarded. Every night El Cid was locked up, and the key never left Van Dyke’s possession. Three weeks passed, and his mind grew more easy. He would be able to finish his school term in peace, and return to his Northern home with his El Cid. The last school-day came, and the last night of his stay at Piedras Blancas. It was well towards midnight when Van Dyke was awakened by a light in the sky. The old man he boarded with shouted, “ The school-house is afire ! ” The teacher sprang through the window, hoping to save at least the library and desks. Ten minutes later, while he toiled like a young giant in the burning building, he looked up, and high on the pine ridge, silhouetted against the sinking moon, he saw a man riding El Cid up the canon of San Simeon, towards the Paso Robles trail. A cry of wild, irrepressible joy came wafted back by the wind. It was the triumph of the Mexican.
Yan Dyke knew how futile was the effort, but in half an hour three men, with the best horses in Piedras Blancas, were on the track. Once, as they began to descend a mountain ridge, they saw El Cid on the summit beyond the valley, two hours ahead, but they never lessened the distance. There were neither railroads nor telegraphs to intercept the Mexican in his course. He crossed the Coast Range into the San Joaquin, then one broad unfenced pasture ; he climbed the Tehichipa Pass, and at that point a cloud-burst washed out the trail. He rode El Cid at last into the lands of the Mexican border outlaws, and there, as the story is told in San Luis, he became a mighty bandit chief, whose horse, Hijo del Mar, was known to fame from the Gulf of California to the Rio Grande.
Charles Howard Shinn.