The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz

September 30, 2017   •   By Dana Gioia

“The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz” describes the life and death of my great-grandfather. Every name, place, and significant event in the poem is true. The ballad has traditionally been the form to document the stories of the poor, particularly in the Old West. The people remembered in the poem sang and recited ballads. The form seemed the right way to tell their story.


The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz

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 an award-winning poet. Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. In 2015 Gioia was appointed the State Poet Laureate of California by Governor Jerry Brown.