Steve Cash

The Meq

This book is for Star and Cody

It is dedicated to the memory of my good friends

Gary McCullah (1946–1970) and K. G. Wells (1948–2001)


I want to thank my longtime friends Frances Bissell and her husband, Tom, for making this possible. I owe an invaluable debt of gratitude to my true and able assistant, Anne Logan, for believing in the story and urging me on. I want to thank my friend and partner, John Dillon, for his keen eye and ear, his patience, and always helpful suggestions. I want to thank my daughter Star for insisting that I write it all down. I want to thank my son Cody for his support when I most needed it, and also for marrying the beautiful Allison and producing the equally beautiful Chloe. I need to thank Sydney Cash because I never have, and I want to thank my sister, Linda Baird, who has put up with me for a lifetime. I also want to thank Cheryl Coates and Elizabeth Byrd at First Impressions because I said I would if we ever made it to print.



The Child is father of the Man.

— William Wordsworth


The kindness of strangers. Is it true? Most often, probably not, but invariably in everyone’s life there is a moment, a window in time, where only a stranger will make sense of a senseless thing and pull you out or through or wherever you need to go and do not have the power to do so alone. It will feel as gentle and effortless as an angel’s touch. It will come unasked and unannounced. It will come from someone whose name you may or may not recall, whose face may blur with memory, but whose deed, in one way or another, saved you. It will be a stranger.

For me, that window was May 4, 1881. It was my twelfth birthday for the first time. I was traveling with my mama and papa on the last leg of a long journey west from St. Louis to Central City, a boom town in the mountains above Denver. We were jammed into a noisy, crowded train filled with people of all sorts and sizes. My papa was going to be the “lapur de urre,” the “thief of gold” in all the great Rocky Mountains. He knew nothing of mining, but he always liked to say he knew everything about gold. “The Basque,” he said, “will never steal your purse, they have the mountains.” My mama always laughed a little when he said these things, but she never disbelieved him. She loved him in a special way, a way as old and wise and silent as the mountains themselves. A way, as you will see, that is unique to them and to me.

My mama said, “Zianno, put that baseball glove down and leave it be. You make me crazy with the rubbing, the rubbing.” That’s my name — Zianno. My mama sometimes called me “Z” because her name was Xamurra and my papa’s name was Yaldi and he liked to think of us as “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” the three unknowns. My mama made the baseball glove by hand in St. Louis. It was my most treasured possession. It was crude and rudimentary, but in 1881, so was baseball.

I kept that glove with me at all times on the trip west. I used it as a pillow at night and rubbed it constantly with my spit to “break it in.” My papa had made me a baseball — actually two, one I kept with me and tossed around and the other he kept with him. We never played with that one.

“Mama,” I said, “you know I’ve got to make it soft. The softer the better.”

“Soft is one thing, my child. Crazy with rubbing is another. But never mind, there is something much more important I want to talk about today.”

The train was inching its way through a mountain pass. Outside, there seemed to be hundreds of waterfalls, some small, some large; a result of heavy spring rains. Papa had made his way to the front of our car in order to listen to a fat man ramble on about recent gold strikes. I put my glove down and looked at Mama’s face. I loved to look at Mama’s face. She had creamy skin and her features were round and small. Round nose, mouth, and eyes that were coal black and always laughing. But not that day. She was serious and I knew it.

I said, “What, Mama? What’s important?”

Mama looked hard into my eyes and reached up with her hands to touch my face. She ran her fingers over my eyebrows and down the line of my cheekbone and traced the outline of my lips. I sat dead still. She touched me often with much love, but not often in this way. It was as if she was trying to remember me with her fingers. The train lurched suddenly from side to side. We were beginning the descent from the pass and picking up speed. It startled Mama, but she wasn’t scared and neither was I. We were sick of trains. She put her hands back in her lap.

“You must listen to me, Zianno. This is your birthday, your twelfth birthday.”

“I know that, Mama, and when we get to—”

She cut me off with a hand gently placed on my mouth. “Now listen, my son. Your birthday is different, this birthday, this one today is different, just as we are different; you, me, and your papa.”

“Different? How are we different, Mama? Because we are Basque?”

“We are Basque, yes, that is true, Z, but we are more than just Basque, we are. older.”

“Older?” I was confused. “You mean you are older. I am twelve, Mama.”

She let out a long sigh and her eyes glanced out of the window, then back to me.

“I mean our. our people are older, different, not like the Giza, the other people. Your papa will tell you everything you need to know, everything about us when we get to Central City.”

“Mama,” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, then sat back in her seat. “I know, my child, I know. I said the same thing to my mama a long time ago, a very long time ago.”

The train was gaining speed. The men gathered at the front of our car were laughing loudly at something the fat man had said, my papa included.

Through the window, the space between our train and the mountain wall opposite was widening. I could clearly see the river racing beside us, swollen from the runoffs and waterfalls I had seen at every turn higher up the mountain. I was trying to make sense of what Mama had said and I wanted her to tell me more, but she was

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