Pulling into Laredo, I was just spending the night at La Posada Hotel on my way North. I was not looking for a news story. I was beat and ready for a good night’s sleep after a fine meal.
Sometimes, one’s best intentions go awry. This afternoon would be no exception to that rule.
After finishing my meal and taking in the view of the Rio Grande, I decided to stroll in the plaza. One of the things I always did while traveling was visit the local places of worship, especially the old churches and cathedrals.
San Agustin Cathedral was a magnificent edifice finished in 1872. The cathedral was showing its age. The bell tower reached to the sky with its cross touching the heavens.
As I entered the sanctuary, I was impressed by the silence, a reverent silence. I sat down and closed my eyes as I contemplated the beauty of this place.
After several minutes, I stood and walked out into the late evening. Outside I saw an older man sweeping.
When he saw me, he smiled. Walking over, I introduced myself, and it was then that I saw a glint in his eyes.
He was one of the parishioners, who swept the front of the edifice three times a day since he retired from the police force ten years ago. He simply asked, “Do you want to hear a story which my father told me?”
How could I refuse such a request from a former police officer and one of the caretakers of this cathedral? There was an old wooden bench nearby; we sat down.
First he gave me a brief history of the city and the religious life from 1755 to the 1860s when French priests, missionary oblates of Mary Immaculate, oversaw the construction of the present cathedral. It was opened December 12, 1872.
One of these priests was Father Pierre Yves Keralum who was the chief architect of the building project. Father Keralum was a jack of old trades.
It was a late summer afternoon when Father Keralum was finishing up his work on several stones for the sanctuary floor. Walking out into the plaza, he was greeted by a sight which stirred his blood.
A young cowboy was being horse whipped by three men. He asked the men to stop.
The men became stoic as the young cowboy lay in the dust with drops of blood from the lashes on his back mingling with the dust of the street. They stared at the old priest.
Father Keralum asked what the meaning of this was. What had this young man did to deserve such a beating?
He smelled the liquor on the three men. In addition the smell of the bordello hung on them like mauvaise odeur.
The man in the middle spoke and said, “This is none your affair, Padre.” The cowboy had refused to buy them a round of rye whiskey at the cantina.
The Father asked why they would beat a man for refusing to buy a round of drinks. There must be more to it than that.
The other two men just shrugged their shoulders. The man in the middle stared at the Father in a baleful stance.
Walking over to him, Father Keralum looked him directly in the right eye, since he wore a patch on his left, and said softly, “This young man is under my care now.”
Father Keralum turned and walked to the young man. Bending down, he helped him up.
The man in the middle raised his whip, but his two friends grabbed his arms. Beating a priest was wrong, and the Texas Rangers would surely find them.
The next morning as Father Keralum walked to his work with the stones, the man in the middle rode up to the Padre. He uttered a few words and rode off.
Father Keralum never told anyone what the man said. The young cowboy recovered from his lashing and rode North to Kansas. He had had enough of Texas.
On November 9, 1872 Father Keralum saddled his donkey for his circuit ride to the ranches in his “parish”. As he stood in front of the cathedral, he looked at the dusty street where the young cowboy had lay bleeding.
A wind blew, whipping the dust up in the air. Many people said they heard the word Décès, sounding like howling wolves singing in the dry winds.
Father Keralum was urged by the other priests to stay. They sensed an evil omen in the winds.
Father Keralum raised his hands in blessing on his friends, and simply said, “Je dois aller.” As they watched the old Padre rode out of Laredo, a sense of loss overwhelmed them.
Father Keralum never returned to Laredo. He disappeared somewhere on the senderos, the trails between the ranches.
It would be ten years before his remains were found by cowboys. His death is a mystery.
The people lost their el Santo Padre Pedrito. The world lost a remarkable man who dedicated his life to helping others.
As the old gentleman finished his story, I thanked him. As I walked back to the hotel, the words of an old song flooded my mind as I pondered on the young cowboy and the old Padre.
As I lay in my bed that night, I wondered if the story that I had been told was one of those stories of Western lore for which the American West is famous. The old song was still whizzing around in my head.
The Streets of Laredo is attributed to Frank Maynard. Frank Maynard was a true cowboy who in 1872 was a young teenager on a cattle drive from Kansas to Texas. He ran into trouble with some cowboys who wanted to kill him because he was a Northerner.
I wonder if Frank Maynard was ever saved by an old Padre. Perhaps, many young cowboys were saved by priests and pastors in the Old West. Of course many young cowboys died in the streets of Laredo, Dodge City, Deadwood, Tombstone and the other mythical towns dotting the Western landscapes.
G. D. Williams © 2014
Tom Roush: The Streets of Laredo