The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz

When I was ten, I had an astonishing conversation with my Mexican grandfather.

The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz
Photo Courtesy Dana Gioia

The true story of my great-grandfather.

Jake’s family were vaqueros.
They worked the cattle drives
Down from Montana to market.
They did what it took to survive.

Jake’s real name was Jesus,
Which the Anglos found hard to take,
So after a couple of days,
The cowboys called him Jake.

When Jake was twelve, his father
Brought him along to ride.
“Don’t waste your youth in the pueblo.
Earn by your father’s side.”

The days were hot and toilsome,
But all of the crew got fed.
It wasn’t hard to sleep on the ground
When you’ve never had a bed.

Three thousand head of cattle
Grazing the prairie grass,
Three thousand head of cattle
Pushed through each mountain pass.

Three thousand head of cattle
Fording the muddy streams,
And then three thousand phantoms
Bellowing in your dreams.

At night when the coyotes called,
Jake would sometimes weep
Recalling how his mother
Sang her children to sleep.

But when he rose in the morning,
The desert air was sweet.
No sitting in a mission school
With bare and dusty feet.

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.

Ten years on the open range
He led the vaquero’s life,
Far from his home in Sonora,
No children and no wife.

Then Jake headed north to Wyoming
To find his winter keep
Among the Basques and Anglos
Who raised and slaughtered sheep.

He came to cold Lost Cabin
Where the Rattlesnake Mountains rise
Over the empty foothills,
Under the rainless skies.

The herders lived in dugouts
Or shacks of pine and tar.
The town had seven buildings.
The biggest was the bar.

John Okie owned the town,
The Sheep King of Wyoming.
He owned the herds. He owned the land
And every wild thing roaming.

He hired Jake for his tavern.
He let him sleep in the kitchen.
Mexicans worked hard.
And didn’t waste time bitching.

Tending bar was easier
Than tending cattle drives.
Jake poured the drinks while the men
Complained about their lives.

Jake never asked them questions.
He knew what he needed to know—
Men working in Lost Cabin,
Had nowhere else to go.

Jake married a sheepherder’s daughter,
Half Indian, half white.
They had two sons, and finally
Things in his life were right.

He told his boys his adventures
As a cowboy riding the plain.
“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.

“Bring over that bottle of whisky!
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.
Three times he shot his rifle,
And Jake fell to the floor.

Then Bill beheld his triumph
As the smoke cleared from the air—
A mirror blown into splinters,
And blood splattered everywhere.

A sudden brutal outburst
No motive could explain:
One poor man killing another
Without glory, without gain.

The tales of Western heroes
Show duels in the noonday sun,
But darkness and deception
Is how most killing is done.

Father Keller came from Lander
To lay Jake in the ground.
A posse searched the mountains
Until Bill Howard was found.

There were two more graves in Wyoming
When the clover bloomed in spring.
Two strangers drifted into town
And filled the openings.

And two tall boys departed
For the cattle drives that May.
With hardly a word to their mother
Who watched them ride away.

DANA GIOIA is the California Poet Laureate


When I was ten, I had an astonishing conversation with my Mexican grandfather. He told me that he had quit school at my age to become a cowboy. When I asked him why, he replied, “My dad got shot in a saloon. My brother and I had to support the family.” He then described his early life in frontier Wyoming. I never forgot his rough and violent story. I also never entirely trusted it.

Forty years later during a speech in Casper, Wyoming, I mentioned the 1910 murder of my great-grandfather, Jesus Ortiz, in nearby Lost Cabin. The state librarian was in the audience. Afterwards she asked me some pointed questions. I assumed she, too, doubted the story. A month later a large packet from the state library arrived in my office in Washington, D.C. It contained copies of newspaper articles and official documents, concerning my great-grandfather’s death and the search for his murderer. Although the events they recorded were a hundred years old, my throat tightened as I turned the pages. Things had happened almost exactly as my hard-drinking grandfather had told me.

I had to tell the forgotten story of Jesus Ortiz. I wanted to write a poem that spoke to both a literary and general audience, to create something that the working-class people I came from could understand. Every time I started, I gave up. The words felt lifeless. Finally, the obvious solution arrived—the cowboy ballad.

The ballad has traditionally been the form to document the stories of the poor, particularly in the Old West. The people I wanted to remember sang and recited ballads. The form seemed the right way to tell their story. “The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz” recounts the life and death of my great-grandfather. Every name, place, and significant event in the poem is true. I apologize the tale took a hundred and six years to tell.

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