I recently wrapped up a vacation in Colorado and New Mexico by spending a few days in Taos. For most of my trip, I’d been wearing one of the Conquistador Ranch hats that I’d had made for The Big Empty.
When I got to Taos, I found myself rethinking my choice of headgear.
The region is home to eight Native American pueblos, including the Taos Pueblo, which has been inhabited continuously for 1,000 years. In the late 1500s, the conquistadors, sanctioned by the King of Spain, moved into the area and, true to their name, conquered the pueblo people, leading to 100 years of conflict. As part of the process, the Spanish forced the native peoples to convert to Christianity and introduced diseases such as small pox.
Given that history, and assuming that many New Mexicans weren’t familiar with The Big Empty—at least not yet—I decided perhaps wearing a Conquistador Ranch hat wouldn’t be respectful to the place I was in.
I also thought about a few critical comments I’ve received on social media about the choice of the name.
Why did I pick a controversial moniker for my fictional ranch in the first place? Well, I wanted something that captured, if you will, the vast history of the land and of Texas. And I thought the name accentuated the conflict between the past and the present that was a theme of the book.
At one point, I had a scene in which Blaine Witherspoon criticized the ranch’s name and suggested it be changed because of the repressive history of the conquistadors.
I wound up cutting that scene, purely for reasons related to the overall structure of the story itself. Witherspoon was already enough of a jerk. Indeed, much of the rewriting in recent years had focused on making him more sympathetic. So in an effort to soften his character, I decided to limit his indignations to the issues that tied directly into the plot.
The other reason for the cut was pacing. The scene occurred when Witherspoon was visiting the ranch during the roundup, and I felt that it distracted from the other events of that chapter.
But in light of my time in Taos, where the impact of the Spanish conquest remains important social context, I found myself thinking about that scene. So I dug it out of an early draft, and here it is:
Witherspoon looked around and took a deep breath. Despite the desolation of the place, and the mounting heat of the late-morning sun, he couldn’t deny there was a beauty to it.
“It’s sure is amazing out here,” he said to Malloy, trying to play on the cowboy’s sympathies.
“It grows on you,” Malloy said.
“It’s too bad the name detracts from the beauty,” Witherspoon said, before he could stop himself.
Witherspoon winced. He’d only been in Malloy’s presence for a few minutes and he was already stirring up conflict. But he couldn’t stop himself. How could the cowboy be so obtuse as to go to work each day in a place whose very name represented what amounted to genocide?
“Conquistador,” he said. “They, uh, weren’t very nice people. They conquered, they basically enslaved people in their quest for gold, they brought disease, they suppressed native religions and forced the indigenous peoples to convert to Christianity. Thousands died. Entire culture were nearly wiped out. Not exactly a heroic namesake.”
Malloy stared at him for a minute. It was bad enough he had to conduct this little slicker show, now he had to defend the name of the ranch itself?. He bit his lip.
“I didn’t name it,” he said flatly.
“I understand, but it seems like the owners of the ranch might want to change the name.”
“Change the name?” Malloy said incredulously. “Do you know what that would cost? The name is known all over the West. The brand is recognized. It’s been the name for over a hundred years. You can’t just change it because someone shows up from Silly-cone Valley and decides they don’t like it.”
“I guess it just depends what you want your name to represent.”
“It represents all this,” Malloy said, waving his hand across the expanse of the land. He took a deep breath, and added. “It was named by a bunch of Scotsmen a hundred years ago. You’d have to take it up with them.”
Besides, he thought to himself, how much longer would the brand endure? What would be the point of changing it now?