The following is an excerpt from Sketches from the Spanish Mustang. If you’d like to purchase the book, use the links on the right side of this page to visit any of the sites where it is sold.
Note: This excerpt is taken from the beginning of the novel.
The town wasn’t a town until long after the Earth exploded in violent agony, pent-up pressure. It could never know its history, could never guess the granite caldera it rested in was formed thirty five million years before. Exactly when the gold and sylvanite and calverite and other minerals pushed through the crust of the Earth and hardened in the volcanic flows, trapped in rich veins, the town could never know.
Neither could the town name its first residents nor when they arrived. They roamed the eroded landscape looking for other animals, foraging for food, setting roots in the soil, then moving on. They were Utes, and they were there before the town could call itself a town. The land was sacred, a gift from Sinawav, the Creator, and it was their home until they were driven off, forced into confined spaces hundreds of miles away.
The occupiers came to the town looking for fortune. They came on foot, by wagon, on rail, and eventually, they came by motorcar. They came to the town unaware of its history, and they came with pick axes, with dynamite, with pack animals and with dreams. They came to work for others or to stake claims on the land for themselves. They came with a gold glint in their eyes, some wary of the possibility, some sure this would be the day their fortunes were made.
The town could never know the violence inflicted by migrants to the area, those who raped the land, drove away the native inhabitants, drank the whiskey, sang the songs, brought with them the donkeys to do the dirty work. The town could never understand the friction that developed within its borders because of what it sat on, what gave it birth in the first place.
The town wasn’t a town until the migrants came looking for fortune.
How long do I have to wait?
The Artist sat on an oak bench outside of the Spanish Mustang and watched casino people mill about. In the September evening, the sun slipped behind the mountains. Wispy sheets of pastel-hued cirrus draped across the sky, portending a coming storm. It would be another day or so before the rains fell, and maybe a few more before the snow. The aspen trees had not yet succumbed to the winds of fall. Their golden leaves shone brilliant, basked in the last of the evening’s orange glow. The gentle susurrus of the wind covered the environment like an aural blanket and brought with it the faint scent of distant fires.
She slowly looked up and down the street, searching for a subject to sketch. Dilapidated buildings with carved dates on their second floor brick façades lined the road. Most of the buildings here had been converted to casinos, and a few smaller stores wedged between them sold anything from homemade fudge to souvenir shot glasses. Above the buildings, the pitheads of ancient mine shafts stood as sentinels on gentle ridges, a reminder of what once constituted the livelihood in the town she called home. Where men once toiled in the earth looking for the wealth created by prehistoric volcanic upheavals, they now toiled at slot machines and card tables instead.
Only a handful of people walked up and down the sidewalks in front of the casinos. Most were inside, looking for that one chance at supposed financial freedom that had hitherto evaded them. An older couple—maybe in their mid-sixties—sat on a bench almost directly across from her. Their faces were locked in perpetual frowns; cigarettes dangled from shaky hands. The man wore a leather jacket, festooned with embroidered motorcycle festivals of the past: Sturgis, Daytona, Lone Star Bike Week. His white beard hung to his chest, contrasting the dark jacket and the even darker Greek fisherman’s hat which no doubt covered a receding hairline. He suddenly guffawed at something the woman said and patted her thigh. His smile quickly returned to a frown. With her skinny jeans and rhinestone-speckled denim jacket, the two would make a good subject to sketch . . . but not today.
The Artist’s mud-brown brown eyes shifted from the couple, past the casino fronts, iron street lamps and parked cars to a nearby intersection where a group of elderly tourists waited to cross. What might have been their tour bus roared away in a cloud of noxious diesel smoke, leaving them momentarily masked by a blue-tinged haze. The women clutched small handbags close to their frail bodies as if protecting their social security money from passersby, while the men they clung to looked more annoyed than wary. They were definitely city-folk, unsure of their surroundings and even more unsure of the people who dotted the sidewalks of this small town called Cripple Creek. Everyone must be suspect—thieves waiting to steal at a moment’s notice.
The small group meandered across the street on their way to the first casino that welcomed them to its fold. Their eyes darted right and left. Their voices mumbled together, indecipherable. Their staggered walk was determined but cautious. There were subjects to draw among them, but they too would have to wait.
At times, she felt like a god, albeit a limited god confined to her earthly form, confined to purgatory. She could see them, hear them, smell their pungent aromas of Old Spice and cigarette smoke. If she were more intrusive, she could also feel them and taste their salty skin. Even from this distance, the masks they wore were obvious; emotions hung on sleeves like snot off the nose of a sickened dog. She could never really get to know them, however, despite her unique station. All she could do was draw them and convince herself the pencil lines and finger smudges revealed hidden secrets, untold tales, like uncovering ancient petroglyphs under centuries of dust and sand.
Art was her passion. Years of putting pencil to paper, charcoal to wood, even crayon to her father’s white walls, had honed her skills. Given the motivation to share her work, she might have raised eyebrows, caught praise or blushed at the exhilarative gasps sure to come. She knew she was not a modern Edgar Degas and her sketches would never sit next to those of Leonardo daVinci or Michelangelo Buonarroti. They were not disengo, building blocks of a more complete painted work; rather they were the completed masterpieces. She understood her own talents and respected them.
She didn’t know if they wanted her to sketch people, but she didn’t really have anything else to do while her sentence extended through the decades.
A boy of maybe seven or eight burst from the storefront behind her, holding a small white bag in his hand. He edged toward the street while furtively examining its contents. She watched as he dug his hand into the bag, wagged it around a bit and pulled out a small wrapped root beer barrel hard candy. With the white bag still clutched in his hand, he tried to peel off the wrapper. A scowl of deep concentration flooded his face as he worked his little fingers into the wrapper’s sides, looking for purchase.
The younger they were, the clearer they could see.
“Need any help?” the Artist asked with a slight smile.
“No ma’am. I think I got it.” His eyes furrowed with effort. His little fingers spun the candy back and forth. Finally, with a crinkle of waxed paper and a satisfied sigh, the wrapper fell away and the candy was popped into his mouth. His cheek bulged on the right like a lopsided chipmunk with red hair and freckles, and he sat down on the bench next to the woman. He looked her up and down quickly then set his eyes on her sketchpad.
“You drawing?” he asked, pointing. He slurped back a bit of root beer flavored saliva. The sickly sweet scent of syrup wafted by.
The Artist shifted on the bench. Despite the passion she had for her sketches of people, buildings, plants, obscure objects and animals, she felt uneasy discussing what she drew. She knew it wasn’t for the quality of what was inside; her work was damn good. No, her wariness came from the revelation of the subjects she drew, as if the subjects would somehow find out what she’d done.
“I was thinking about it,” she finally said as her hands clutched the sketchbook a little tighter.
“My mama says people ought not draw other people on account of not asking permission.” The boy smacked his lips and waved his free hand haphazardly up and down the street. “I don’t reckon these people care, though, do they?”
She smiled. “Your mama’s got a half-truth in there. I supposed they would care if I ever showed them.”
“But you ain’t gonna do that?”
“No. They can’t see.”
The boy sat still for a long moment and seemed to ponder the woman’s words. He slowly looked up and down the street and swung his legs freely over the edge of the bench. After a while, he nodded toward a man in a blue down Columbia jacket leaning against a lamp post across the street, his hands buried deep in the pockets of twill pants. “What about Mr. James?” he asked, pointing. “My mama says he don’t look good these days, and that I should steer clear of him. She says he’s always angry, but I bet he’d get a kick out of you sketching him up.”
The Artist followed the boy’s pointing finger. Nathan James looked out of place mixed in with the casino people along the wide sidewalk. He was taller than most, brown hair and short-cropped beard speckled with both white and gray. From this distance, she couldn’t see his brown eyes, but he knew they were buried deep in creeping wrinkles under a heavy brow. He seemed lost in thought, gazing over the buildings behind her.
“He’s not angry,” the woman said. “He’s sad.”
“I figured as much, what with everything’s that’s happened to him, but I didn’t want to tell Mama she was wrong. You don’t know how she gets.”
The Artist nodded as a tiny bell announced the opening of the storefront door behind her. A heavy-set woman plodded out.
“Time to go, Billy,” she bellowed, a tone of both frustration and irritation evident in her deep alto voice. The woman stomped to the edge of the bench. She heaved a canvas bag over her shoulder and huffed. “Dinner is late, and your father is getting hungry.”
The boy stood and waved to the Artist on the bench. “Guess I got to go. See you later.”
The Artist smiled and watched the portly woman wobble down the sidewalk, pulling on the boy’s hand. As she watched, she pushed back a fount of emotion that swelled, threatening to drown her. She had been that age, at once exuberant of life and terrified of its consequences. At that age, vision isn’t clouded and you see what you see. It was unfair that some kids never lived that long.
She turned back to the figure across the street, obliterating her tangential thoughts. He hadn’t moved.
Behind Nathan James, two other men emerged from a recess set in the building. They looked both foreign and tentative. Both of them threw glances around at everything and everyone and all at once. They were new to town, out of place, migrant bodies who stumbled across the oasis of central Colorado. While one man ground a cigarette into the sidewalk with his foot, the other turned and looked across the street, perhaps directly at the Artist, or maybe through her. She could never be sure.
A sensation shot through her hands, buzzing like a thousand pricks of electric needles. The Artist slowly opened the sketchbook and pulled a black pencil from the spiral binding. She lifted her hand and rested the heel on the paper, her eyes locked on the man across the street, the migrant looking for fortune.
Read the rest of the Artist’s story and those of the people she encounters in
Sketches from the Spanish Mustang
Sketches from the Spanish Mustang
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Of course the copyright to this excerpt is mine, 2012.