It was 1958 and at this time of year the the shadows grew longer all across El Rancho Feliz. It was fall in South Texas. The temperatures were by no means cold, but considering the mercury held steady at 106 degrees most of summer, the cooler temperatures offered a most welcomed reprieve.
Inside the sprawling ranch house, Juana the cook cleared the table. Hers had been a sumptuous meal; fried chicken, mashed potatoes swimming in a cream gravy. Fresh green beans with sautéed with onion and pork renderings. Fresh biscuits and for desert, chocolate cake…just as El Jefe likes. And tonight “El Jefe was happy.
He liked be called “The Boss”. He liked being shown the respect he felt he earned.
He finished his supper and walked out to his front porch sit sit for a while. He did this every evening; it was a ritual. He needed to sit and commune with his ranch, to remind himself of what it took to amass two thousand head of cattle and the 15-thousand acres on which his herd roamed. The oil and gas wells that ‘them old boys from Houston brung in’ certainly helped. Their proceeds helped fed the beast that was his ranch; El Rancho Feliz. Cattle was king to Raleigh Joe Rassmussen.
The shrewd cattleman was 69 years old that night. He fancied himself to be a fair man, but his rivals didn’t think that to be the case. It was his mindset that nothing can ever be achieveed by playing it safe….or nice. It was intimidation that acquired El Rancho Feliz as much as actual dollars or financing through the Farm Bureau. That earned him the title “That son of a bitch Rassmussen!” to his enemies.
He was ‘sir” to everyone else.
But to his loving wife, Etta, he was simply, R.J.and she was the only person who called him that.
His reputation for being rough and tough was legend in these parts, butMiss Etta could take the sting out of venom. He loved this woman. She’d been his wife for 28 years and quietly stood by him through thick and thin. Her place was to support her husband and to remain silent; in complete submission to her man, though he always seemed to heed her gentle suggestions. She was his rock in many ways; they’d been through so much together; emotional feast and economic famine. She’d also given him four children, though Bud had been killed in combat while fighting in Korea. The loss of his only son damned near killed R.J. He was a proverbial chip off of R.J.’s block. This ranch was destined to be his and out of the four kids, he was only one to really appreciate what it was; what it stood for. The three girls resented it for keeping them isolated in a place that seemed to move at a difference pace then the rest of the world. College offered them escape. It proved to them that there was in fact, outside of the hot, sparse confines of the northern Sonoran desert.
“That’s OK.”, R.J. tried to convince himself time and time again. “They’ll learn to love this place someday. Right now, they have no idea how much this ranch is a part of them, but it is. It’s always fed their souls. It always will.”
Etta walked out on the porch with a glass of ice tea in her hand. She sat down in the rocking chair beside her husband. It was quiet. No one was around for miles. It was easy to become one with the land when that’s all you can see for miles and miles. There was a light breeze; a slight rustling in the shrubs which lined the porch. There was peace. Words were uttered without ever being spoken. This was a magic time for the Rasmussens; when the past and future converge in the present and a nuclear fusion of color stemming from a western sunset could only punctuate the moment.
“I have to drive to Monterrey tomorrow”.
“I gotta take care of that land matter with Salinas. That damned fool don’t seem to know what a property line is and I saw some of his cattle on our land the other day. Had the double S brand on ’em and everything. I’m tired of fixin’ fences with him, both literally and socially. I hope we can reach some kinda agreement, but I doubt it. He don’t know half of what goes on at his place.”
“Mr. Salinas doesn’t know what’s going on at this own ranch? How’s that, R.J?”
“Don’t you know, Etta? I didn’t tell ya? He’s one of them ‘gentleman ranchers’. He’s some sort of banker in Monterrey and hardly ever leaves the city. He don’t care about land. This just some kind of investment to him. He’s got hired hands managing it for him and I don’t suspect any of them gotta clue as to how to run a lawnmower, much less a ranch”.
“Well, alright then. You be careful and bring me back some of that good Mexican vanilla, OK?”
“Yes ma’am. Vanilla it is!”
“And R.J., please don’t stop at that filthy, little dirt floor hole in the wall outside Monterrey and have those…those…well, you know; those nasty meat things you like some much!”
“Etta honey, they’s Mountain Oysters. You know, bull testicles and I’m sorry but I will most certainly stop by that dirty old wall hole and eat me some of them thigns. You know I love ’em and no one else in the world can fry ’em like that cook they got. Alfonso is his name. You eat ’em with some onions and chiles wrapped up in one of them soft flour tortillas and bite down and then you…….”
“You hush up now, R.J. Rassmussen or your gonna make me sick at my stomach!”
He laughed at his wife’s feigned nausea. She claimed to hate Mountain Oysters, even though she’d never ever even tried one. He always suspected this hearty woman from good Texas stock reacted that way just to make her husband smile.
The next day R. J. got his truck and headed south to Laredo’s International Bridge. He crossed into Mexico without a hitch and drove down the highway. The mountains were just ahead. That meant that little dirty, dusty café that Etta reviled was just around the corner. He’d been there many times. This was all familiar territory to him.
There it was: “El Restaurante del Lago”. There wasn’t much to it. You couldn’t even call it a building, really. dIt was basically a couple of old softdrink and beer billboards half propped up by post and half leaning against each other. A crude awning covered a few tables, a dirt floor that was perfect for dancing on Saturday night and in the back, there was a hastily made deep fryer and stove. The place was wired for electricity, though R.J. could never figure out how they did it. A jukebox in the corner played some conjunto music.
“Hola, Senor Rassmussen. Es good you come today!”
“How you doing Manuel. Good to see you, too. Is Alfonso cookin’ up them specialties of the house today? I sure can smell somethin’ good.”
“Today we have the food you like. You want a tequila and you wait?”
R.J. nodded and noticed a few oldtimers sitting in the corner. They were dark skinned and looked tired and worn down. Hard work in the hot north Mexican sun had aged them beyond their years. They said nothing and with the exception of a periodic sip of their beer, they were motionless.
R.J. could smell Alfonso demonstrating his craft at the deep fryer. His taste buds were prepped and ready to savor this treat. Manual brought him a jigger of tequila and a few limes and J.R. sat there, sipping it slowly in anticipation of his meal.
The waiter brough him a plate and R.J. looked down to see two very large lightly fried mountain oysters with a some onions, jalapenos and a few tortillas on the side.
Manuel barely had time to deliver a plate to the old men drinking beer in the corner when J.R. have eaten everything on his plate, and motioned to him again, asking for another plate.
“Si, Señor Rassmussen!”
He finished his plate and noticed that the two other diners were also enjoying particularly large, rotund Mountain Oysters. He sipped the rest of his tequila. It tasted good. Life was good.
Just then, Manuel brough him another plate.
“Fresh from the bull fight in Secorro across the calle, Señor Rassmussen. Perfecto, no?”
R.J. looked at the plate. This time the portions were considerably smaller.
“You say these is fresh bull balls from over to the bullfightin’ ring across the way?”
“Si, the battle just happen now. These are very fresh!”
“But they’s so small lookin’ Manuel. The other ones was so much bigger. Why is that? What the hell happened?”
Manual grabbed the dirty white dish towel that was flung over his shoulder and started swatting at flies.
“Well, Señor Rassmussen, sometimes de bull wins!”
R. J. started laughing and picked up a flour taco full of the specialty of the house and looked at it.
“Well olé then, goddammit!”