Thursday, January 19, 2012

Researching Spurs for Jose by Wanda Snow Porter

Spurs for José
, is a coming-of-age, historical adventure.The story links California’s mission period and rancho period, and ends just as gold is discovered and California becomes the 31st state of the Union. Because of José’s belief in curses, visions, and luck, it also blends the mystical with the real world.

When José Rodriquez’s papa says he must help tame Rancho Grande’s wild colts, he knew this day would come, for on the Alta California rancho, being a vaquero and training horses was his family’s tradition. Vaqueros’ horsemanship and roping skills were legendary and their lives full of danger. Many vaqueros had been killed or crippled while riding the mustangs. Would he have enough courage to ride the wild ones and measure up to his papa’s expectations?

Worried, José decides luck will help him ride the wild colts, luck he will get from a pair silver spurs and chaps made from a brave bull’s hide. But with no money, how can he buy silver spurs? Then, the Mexican-American war starts, and a few days before Christmas, Colonel John C. Fremont’s battalion camps on Rancho Grande and everything changes.

While researching Spurs for José, I felt like a treasure hunter exploring Indian painted caves, California missions, and old graveyards. As horsewoman, I already had hands-on-experience with the vaquero's unique way of training horses. My husband, a descendant of California pioneers, provided me with many interesting family stories, and I read all I could find on the history of the vaqueros, the rancheros, and the California Indians. I included a bibliography in the book, and I want to encourage Parents and Teachers of 4th through 8th graders to check out the Vaquero Activity page on my website:

Excerpt from Spurs for José

Outside, the wind and rain roared, interrupted by lightning flashes and thunderclaps that shook the ground. Cold and miserable in the darkness, José wrapped his arms around Amigo’s trembling neck, trying to get warm. It seemed like he stood in the dark a long time, hugging Amigo and shivering from the cold. Then in a flash of lightning, he saw Amigo turn his head and prick his ears toward the cave’s opening. Was it just the noise of the storm or did his horse hear something outside?

“Who’s out there?” he shouted. No one answered.

Amigo’s body tensed. Something must be outside. José hoped it wasn’t a grizzly looking for shelter. “Who’s there,” he screamed louder, hoping his voice would scare away whatever was out there.

Despite the noisy storm, he heard gravelly footsteps. Something had entered the cave. “Who is it?” José called out again.

A voice replied, “Who’s in here?”

“Who are you?”

“It’s Pedro. Is that you, José?”

“Pedro, are you following me?” José pretended he was angry, but was secretly glad he and Amigo were no longer alone.

“I was trying to catch up with Fremont’s army when this storm hit,” Pedro said.

Pedro’s teeth chattered from the cold and wet. Flashes of lightning lighted the cave, and he could see Pedro’s dripping, wet hair and sopping shirt. José was just as soggy. “Get closer to Amigo. He’ll keep you warm.”

In the dark, Pedro edged around the trembling horse and stood closer to José. The boys leaned against Amigo, finding comfort from the horse’s warm body and each other’s company.

“Why are you here?” Pedro asked.

“I was going to join Fremont’s vaqueros, too. Where is your horse?”

“He fell in the darkness. The reins slipped out of my hands, and he disappeared. I saw this cave and thought it would be a good place to stay dry. I’ve never seen it rain like this. I hope it stops soon. The war will be over before I catch up with Fremont.”

“Papa says it’s not our fight. Why do you want to join Fremont’s army?” José asked.

“For the money Fremont is paying vaqueros. If I earn enough money, maybe someday, if I save it, I could buy a little rancho.”

“You are a blacksmith, not a vaquero.”

“Maybe so. But I have a horse, and Fremont won’t know the difference. Besides, he may need a blacksmith, too.”

“Seems you don’t have a horse now,” José said.

“I’ll find him in the morning, after this rain stops.”

“You have big dreams. Owning a rancho? Me, with the twenty-five dollars, I want to buy a pair of spurs like the ranchero wears. A pair of beautiful silver spurs, that is all I want.” It seemed strange. A day ago, he was mad enough to punch Pedro’s jaw. But now, in the scary darkness, something had changed, and they were again talking like friends.

“You vaqueros love fancy bits and shiny spurs. I can make silver spurs for you. Wearing the beautiful spurs I make will be lucky, and you will become the greatest horse trainer in all of Alta California.”

“The greatest horse trainer?” To be the greatest horse trainer in Alta California had never entered José’s mind. He just needed silver spurs to bring him luck and help him be brave enough to ride the wild, bucking colts and make his papa proud. That would be enough to make José happy.

Tired, the boys sat down, leaned against the cold, stony wall and fell asleep. When they woke it was Christmas morning. It was quiet outside. The rain had stopped. In the dawn’s light, they saw strange patterns painted on the cave’s rocky walls.

“Look,” José said, pointing at the brightly painted designs decorating the cave. “These must be the sacred paintings Tomas said our people painted long ago. They are strange. That one looks like a snake, and that one like the sun. What do they mean?”

Pedro stood and reached up to trace the painted lines with his finger. “I’ve heard of these paintings, but have never seen them.”

“Don’t touch them! Tomas says they’re sacred. Spirits are here. That is why our ancestors painted this cave.” José knelt and whispered a prayer the padre had taught him. He no longer knew the prayers of the people who had painted the cave. “Our ancestors must have guided us here to protect us and help us on our journey. We should leave this cave and hurry to catch up with Fremont.” He stood and led Amigo out of the cave. “Let’s go.”

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