Jean & La Picadora, Spain 1992 During our last summers overseas, my daughter and I took to camping on our vacations, as the most economical way of traveling and seeing as much of the country as we could. A nice campground in Spain provided the convenience of a hotel at a fraction of the cost, and for a child, the chance to run and romp freely. Guided by a copy of the “guia”, which listed the campgrounds in proximity to various cities, and icons indicating what sort of comforts were provided— pool, shop, hot showers, electricity— and where (km 320 N, carretera # so and so) one summer trip described a large loop through Extremedura, Andalucia and Granada. Blondie’s only dictate about our camping place concerned the availability of either a pool, the sea, or in a pinch, a river in which to frolic. She swam like a fish, and preferred to spend as much time as possible in a bathing suit.

The nearest campground to Seville was several miles distant inland from the city, a dusty tract on a frontage road paralleling the autopista between Cordoba and Seville, grown with trees, and scrub brush, stretching uphill from the entrance. The main permanent buildings were clustered around a pool at the bottom end: a bar with a little restaurant, the managers office, a little store selling small propane bottles, soft drinks, bread and canned goods. A narrow paved roadway zigzagged up the hill, past the pool and bar, past clusters of tent sites and parking places, leveled out of the hillside here and there, looped around the top of the property, where the washrooms and showers, and the water spigots and sinks for doing dishes crowned a little, rocky knoll, and meandered down again on the opposite side. Since it was not actually the holiday season— the month of August— for Spaniards, the campground was all but deserted, and the restaurant not yet open for business. There were a couple of families with caravans on the electrified campsites, lower down the hill, and a couple from Holland on the site next to ours, tent-camping.

My daughter and I had gotten very adept at setting up the tent, and the little gas stove with our cooking pots. We had a couple of folding chairs, and an ice-box, and managed very efficiently, cramming it all into the Very Elderly Volvo’s generous trunk and moving on, ever couple of days— unlike the Spanish, who set up elaborate tent-cottages at some salubrious spot for the month of August, and brought along refrigerators, televisions, pets and all. We had seen cats, birds, dogs, and even a pair of monkeys at a campground near Leon, but the campground in Seville took the cake, because there was a horse.

We came up from the pool, early in the evening, walking up the dusty footpath towards our tent, and there was a man on a dapple-gray horse, exercising the horse among the trees at the upper end of the campground. The man was a wiry little guy, in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, missing half the buttons, and a soft cap pulled over his eyes. The horse was a dainty thing, several hands shorter than Wilson, the horse that Mom and Dad had bought for us to learn to ride, with an elegantly dark gray muzzle, hard-muscled and sleek. My daughter was enchanted, and eaten up with curiosity. The rider as well as the horse were very much dressed down: the light saddle was worn, and the bridle was held together at some points with knots of plastic string, while the rider slouched through some paces, and briefly struck a pose you see in pictures; reins in one hand, fist on hip; glorious, martial and Spanish to the core. Then he waved to us, casually.
“’Ola… como ‘stas.”
“Buenos,” I said with the proper Aragonese slur. “Habla englis? Habla un poco espanol.”
“Si.” He rode up to us, as my daughter asked,
“Can I pet the horse?”
“Si. “ He affectionately slapped the horses’ neck, and it dipped a velvety muzzle to us.
“Mind the teeth,” I said to my daughter. I rubbed the flat part, above the nostrils, and the horse blew out an alfalfa-scented gust, “Pet the dark parts… doesn’t that feel like velvet.” Her eyes were huge. The rider swung down, still holding the reins in one hand, and we began to talk. I cannot now remember sure exactly how the conversation went, only that it was in a combination of fractured English and Spanish. He gave us to understand that the horse was a mare, in foal (he slapped her barrel gently) and that he had been at an equestrian event in Seville. His good friend was the bartender at the campground bar, and his wife was coming tonight with a horse trailer, but he was killing time until then. He had a finca (a ranch) several hours away, and the mare was a proper bull-fighting horse. He proudly pointed out a healed scar on her shoulder, and casually asked if either of us would like to ride for a bit. I demurred, as it had been a good many years since Wilson, and I had been more used to riding without a saddle, but my daughters’ eyes got huge with excitement,
“Si, por favor!” she breathed.
I held the reins, while he gave her a leg up, and showed her how to put her toes into the stirrups. She had only once been on a horse, and twice on donkeys, all three times while someone led the animal around. He handed her the reins, and showed her how to use them to control the horse, while I watched apprehensively as she pulled too far back, and the mare began to rear. Both of us dove for the mare’s nose, while my daughter stuck like a burr to the saddle, not the least bit frightened or out of countenance.

I let out my breath… my god, she was at home as if she had been born in a saddle and ridden every day of her life. She sat proud and fearless, all of ten years old, while the mare’s owner jovially called out a reminder to keep her elbows in. She nudged the mares’ flanks with her heels, and the mare obediently walked ahead— no gentle old plug kept for a children’s easy ride, but a working, bullfighting horse, but then she had ever been the most fearless of children: not heights, not barking dogs, not strangers or the deepest of water had ever held terror for her.

She rode that horse all over the upper part of the campground for two hours, at a walk, trot, even essaying a short gallop or two, while the Dutch couple and I watched, and the mare’s owner kept company with us. We all drank sangria in the twilight and talked in English and Spanish about horses, and what we had seen in Spain, and where we lived. Occasionally, as my daughter went by on the dapple mare, he called out encouragement and praise, and reminders about keeping elbows in and heels down, and I wondered where on earth and by what genetic predilection this skill had come from, appearing in full flower. People are not supposed to be instantly good at something, this was like watching a kid go to a piano for the very first time, and belt out a Goldberg Variation, or diagram an obscure and complicated mathematical theory the first time they pick up a piece of chalk… but there she was, instantly at ease, better than I had been after weeks of lessons.

Where are those talents hidden, and how many revealed by an unexpected coincidence? How often does this happen with parents, watching their children suddenly take to the air and fly on the wings of that talent, while we stand on the ground and watch. For me, it was that time in a campground in Spain, when my daughter took the reins of a bullfighting horse, and never once looked down.

A number of summers ago, when I was still stationed in Spain, I packed up my daughter, and a tent and all the necessary gear, and did a long looping camping tour of the southern part of Spain, down through the Extremadura, and to the rock of Gib al Tarik, and a long leisurely drive along the Golden Coast – I had driven from Sevilla, past the sherry-manufacturies around Jerez La Frontera (on a Sunday, so they were closed, although the Harvey’s people should have given me a freebie on general principals, I had sipped enough of their stuff, over the years), made a pit stop at the Rota naval base for laundry and groceries. I had driven into Gibraltar, done a tour of the historic gun galleries, seen the famous Gibraltar apes, and then waited in the long customs line to come back into Spain. We had even stopped at the Most Disgusting Public Loo on the face of the earth, at a gas station outside of San Roque, before following the road signs along the coastal road towards Malaga and Motril, and our turn-off, the road that climbed steadily higher into the mountains, the tall mountains that guarded the fortress city of Granada, and the fragile fairy-tale pavilions of the Alhambra.

The road followed the coastline, for the most part, sweeping through towns like Estepona and Marbella as the main thoroughfare, always the dark blue Mediterranean on the right, running wide of the open beaches, hugging the headlands, with new condos and little towns shaded by palm and olive trees, splashed with the brilliant colors of bougainvillea, interspersed with the sage-green scrublands. The traffic was light enough along the coastal road, and I began to notice a certain trend in place names; Torre de Calahonda, Torremolinos, Torre del Mar, Torrenueva – and to notice that most of the tall headlands, rearing up to the left of the road, were topped by a (usually) ruinous stone watchtower. Forever and brokenly looking out to the sea, and a danger that might come from there, a danger of such permanence as to justify the building of many strong towers, to guard the little towns, and the inlets where fisher-folk would beach their boats and mend their nets.

This rich and lovely coast was scourged for centuries by corsairs who swept in from the sea, peacetime and wartime all alike, savage raiders with swords and torches and chains, who came to burn and pillage – and not just the portable riches of gold, or silver, but those human folk who had a cold, hard cash value along the Barbary Coast, in the slave markets of Algiers and Sale. It was a scourge of such magnitude that came close to emptying out the coastal districts all along the Spanish, French and Italian coasts, and even reached insolently into Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Iceland. The raiders from the port of Sale (present-day Morocco) grew fabulously wealthy form their expertise in capturing and trafficking in captured Christians from all across coastal villages in Western Europe, and from ships’ crews taken in the Mediterranean and the coastal Atlantic waters. This desperate state of affairs lasted into the early 19th century, until the power and reach of the Barbary slave-raiders was decisively broken. For hundreds of years, though, families all along this coast and elsewhere must have risen up from bed every morning knowing that by the end of the day they and or their loved ones might very well be in chains, on their way to the slave markets across the water, free no longer, but a market commodity.

This kind of life-knowledge is out of living memory along that golden Spanish coast, but it is within nearly touchable distance in Texas and other parts of the American West, where my own parent’s generation, as children in the Twenties and Thirties would have known elderly men and women who remembered the frontier – not out of movies, or from television, but as children themselves, first-hand and with that particular vividness of sight that children have, all that adventure, and danger, privation and beauty, the triumph of building a successful life and community out of nothing more than homesteaded land and hard work.

There was no chain of watchtowers in the harsh and open borderlands of Texas, watching over far-scattered settlements and little towns, and lonely ranches in a country never entirely at peace, but not absolutely at war. The southwestern tribes, Comanche, Apache and their allies roamed as they wished, a wild and free life, hunting what they wanted, raiding when they felt like it, and could get away with it. Sometimes, it was just a coarse game, to frighten the settlers, to watch a settler family run for the shelter of their rickety cabin, fumbling for a weapon with shaking hands, children sheltering behind their parents like chicks. But all too often, for all too many homesteading and ranching families, it ended with the cabin looted and burned, the adults and small children butchered in the cruelest fashion, stripped and scalped.

And the cruelest cut of all, to survivors of such raids in Texas and the borderlands, was that children of a certain age— not too young to be a burden, not too old to be un-malleable (aged about seven to twelve, usually) were carried away, and adopted into the tribes. Over months and years, those children adapted to that life so completely that even when they were ransomed back and brought home, they never entirely fitted in to a life that seemed like a cage. They had been taken as children, returned as teenagers or adults, to an alien life, to parents and family they could no longer see as theirs. Some of them pined away after their return, like the most famous of them, Cynthia Ann Parker, others returned to their Indian families. For parents of these lost children, that must have been so cruel, to lose a much-loved child not just once, but upon finally get them back, and then discovering that they were no longer yours, they had not been a slave, a captive … and now they longed to be away, roving the open lands as free as a bird.

(The connection between these two topics is that I was reading Giles Milton’s White Gold, and Scott Zesch’s Captured at more or less the same time.) The Captured gave me a fantastic idea for a plot twist in Book Three – Adelsverein … who knows, I might yet write more about that character?