One of Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie’s favorite stories was the story of Sancho, the tamale-loving Longhorn. He heard it from John Rigby of Beeville, Texas. Dobie said that he figured Rigby had dressed up the story a bit and also admitted that he himself had done some “constructive work” on it over the years. It goes like this:
There was a man named Kerr who lived on a small ranch out in the brush country south of San Antonio. One day he found a cow dead in a bog with her near-lifeless calf beside her. Kerr roped the calf, pulled it over his saddle and took it home to his wife, Maria. She cleaned up the poor calf and bottle-fed him until Kerr could find another cow with a calf to adopt the orphan. Maria named the calf Sancho. As he grew, she kind of fell in love with him.
She began feeding him tamales, shuck and all. The tamales were seasoned with peppers, and Sancho loved the spicy taste. Out in the brush he began eating the chiltipiquin peppers that grew wild in shaded places. He actually hunted for them.
Sancho was eventually branded and turned into a steer. “But he was as strong as any bull.” Nonetheless, he remained Maria’s pet and came in from the range each night to sleep under a mesquite tree he loved – just outside the house gate.
When Sancho was 3 years old, the Shiner brothers were going to deliver three herds of longhorns to buyers in Wyoming. Kerr sold Sancho to the Shiner Brothers, who branded him 7Z for the drive north. In the late evening before they were to leave, the herd was bedded down out on the nearby range. But Sancho would have none of it. He wandered back up to his spot under the old mesquite.
The next day, the cowboys rounded up Sancho and headed him north with the herd. He kept lagging back at the southern end and he was tagged by the boys as “one to watch.” He was wiley. He would often stop and face south and sniff the breeze for the smell of the Mexican Gulf. At night, a cowboy would rope him and tie him to a big bush or tree.
In the daytime, when the herd would graze northward, Sancho would face south and graze in that direction. On the 10th day, he made his escape. The cowboys couldn’t find Sancho, but he ran into the second Shiner herd coming along behind them and the cowboys rounded him up. Once again, Sancho hung out at the back of the herd. Again, the cowboys tagged him as a clever one that needed watching.
One day the cattle balked at a full-flowing river. “Rope old Sancho and lead him in,” a boss ordered. They did so, and Sancho led the herd across. No problem.
But as soon as he was released, Sancho returned to the rear of the herd, where he could watch for chances to head home to his mesquite tree and tamales.
The herd nonetheless moved ever northward. Across the Canadian, across the Cimarron. Across Kansas, around Dodge City, across Nebraska, under the Black Hills, and past the Big Horn Mountains. Two thousand miles.
They finally reached Wyoming. Sancho was still halting now and then “to sniff southward to see if he might get a whiff” of Texas somewhere in the wind. He didn’t like this new land. There was frost in the morning. No tamales. No peppers, which would be ripe back home now.
The new ranch branded CR on Sancho, and the Shiner boys saddled up and headed home, leaving Sancho behind.
The next spring, back in Texas, John Rigby was riding near Kerr’s home on Esperanza Creek. He said, “I looked across the pear flat and saw something that made me rub my eyes.”
He asked his buddy Joe Shiner if he saw what he saw. Shiner said “Yes, but I have to read the brand first.” He rode over and looked, and it was Sancho. Four years old now. He had both the “7Z road brand and the CR range brand on him as plain as day.” They went to talk to Kerr.
He said, “Yes, Sancho got back six weeks ago. Hoofs worn down to hair. But Maria went might near out of her mind with joy at seeing him.” She hugged him and cried and fed him hot tamales. Sancho’s sleeping every night under the mesquite by the gate. Kerr said Maria worried that Mr. Shiner might herd him back to Wyoming again.
Shiner said, “Any steer that loved Texas enough to walk all the way home from Wyoming” was safe from any further herding.
Sancho stayed fat on mesquite grass and tamales and chili peppers until he died a natural death.
This story is in “The Essential J. Frank Dobie” edited by Steven L. Davis.