The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz

The form seemed the right way to tell their story. When Jake was twelve, his father
Brought him along to ride. They had two sons, and finally
Things in his life were right. The tales of Western heroes
Show duels in the noonday sun,
But darkness and deception
Is how most killing is done. The town had seven buildings. Jake never asked them questions. Then Jake headed north to Wyoming
To find his winter keep
Among the Basques and Anglos
Who raised and slaughtered sheep. Three thousand head of cattle
Fording the muddy streams,
And then three thousand phantoms
Bellowing in your dreams. In 2015 Gioia was appointed the State Poet Laureate of California by Governor Jerry Brown. He owned the land
And every wild thing roaming. Then Bill beheld his triumph
As the smoke cleared from the air —
A mirror blown into splinters,
And blood splattered everywhere. They worked the cattle drives
Down from Montana to market. Mexicans worked hard. He told his boys his adventures
As a cowboy riding the plain. Every name, place, and significant event in the poem is true. Jake married a sheepherder’s daughter,
Half Indian, half white. A posse searched the mountains
Until Bill Howard was found. Tending bar was easier
Than tending cattle drives. He knew what he needed to know —
Men working in Lost Cabin,
Had nowhere else to go. No sitting in a mission school
With bare and dusty feet. They did what it took to survive. But when he rose in the morning,
The desert air was sweet. A sudden brutal outburst
No motive could explain:
One poor man killing another
Without glory, without gain. With hardly a word to their mother
Who watched them ride away. Jake’s real name was Jesus,
Which the Anglos found hard to take,
So after a couple of days,
The cowboys called him Jake. He owned the herds. He let him sleep in the kitchen. Earn by your father’s side.”
The days were hot and toilsome,
But all of the crew got fed. The biggest was the bar. And didn’t waste time bitching. If you don’t grab it, I will.”
“Okie said to cut you off
Until you paid your bill.”
Bill Howard slammed his fist down,
“Is this some goddamn joke,
A piss-poor Mexican peon
Telling me I’m broke?”
A little after midnight
Bill came back through the door. SEPTEMBER 30, 2017

“The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz” describes the life and death of my great-grandfather. The ballad has traditionally been the form to document the stories of the poor, particularly in the Old West. There were two more graves in Wyoming
When the clover bloomed in spring. Three thousand head of cattle
Grazing the prairie grass,
Three thousand head of cattle
Pushed through each mountain pass. And when the drive was over,
He got his pay — and then
He came back to the pueblo
Where he was one of the men. At night when the coyotes called,
Jake would sometimes weep
Recalling how his mother
Sang her children to sleep. And two tall boys departed
For the cattle drives that May. Jake poured the drinks while the men
Complained about their lives. “Bring over that bottle of whisky! ¤
Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet. Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. Ten years on the open range
He led the vaquero’s life,
Far from his home in Sonora,
No children and no wife. The people remembered in the poem sang and recited ballads. Two strangers drifted into town
And filled the openings. Three times he shot his rifle,
And Jake fell to the floor. Father Keller came from Lander
To lay Jake in the ground. He hired Jake for his tavern. “Papa,” they cried, “will you take us
When you ride out again?”
One night he had an argument
With a herder named Bill Howard,
A deserter from the Border War,
A drunkard, and a coward. “Don’t waste your youth in the pueblo. He came to cold Lost Cabin
Where the Rattlesnake Mountains rise
Over the empty foothills,
Under the rainless skies. ¤
The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz
Jake’s family were vaqueros. The herders lived in dugouts
Or shacks of pine and tar. John Okie owned the town,
The Sheep King of Wyoming. It wasn’t hard to sleep on the ground
When you’ve never had a bed.