For the first morning that he could remember, Merle did not awaken to the pungent scent of burning mesquite.
In the eastern sky, the sun was slowly climbing to melt away the dawn haze, but no familiar smoke rose up to greet the early fledgling rays. No whistling, no pots banging, just the distant sound of the big rigs keeping their destiny with modern commerce further west.
Merle gave a rough shake and slowly plodded towards the pile of blankets that lay close to the cold clots of charcoal from last night's campfire. He stood quietly for a moment, then gave a gentle nudge to the prone form.
There was no response, not even a quick playful slap to his face.
He was not sure how long he stood over her, but later the sour apple sucker man appeared. He came with others, unfamiliar people with too quick movements that frightened Merle. Moving to the safety of a large creosote bush, he watched as the others put the blanketed form into the back of a large white van. A memory stirred; like an important dignitary, Merle had once been chauffeured in the back of a gleaming Cadillac. Of course, the backseat had been removed to accommodate his girth, but it was certainly in style.
Just as suddenly as they came, everyone was gone, including the woman he had spent most of his life with. It was a disconcerting day.
They called her the "Burro Lady". Who knows what drove her, what hidden hurt had pushed her to this outer limits of the Texas landscape; Judy Freeman Magers was iconic, a real life portrait of a free spirited woman. Preferring the nomadic existence, she left the Bend as quietly as she entered, with the merest of ripples in the rough sand.
She was a mystery even to those who were able to coax a few words from her. It was rumored that she once was a bareback bronc rider in Nebraska. It was surely true she knew a special way with her four-legged burro friends, especially Merle. And she had the most unique address in the whole state, maybe the whole nation: By the River, Texas, USA.
So fiercely independent, La Reina believed in paying her own way. One friend, Bill Ivey, had saved a quarter here, a dime there of the money she insisted he take in exchange for goods or services. Over the years, it had added up and now Ivey would use it to help prepare her burial.
At her request, Judy was buried with her hat, boots and spurs (though these had to be purchased - somehow these were not in her possession at the time of her death) in the odd and famous Terlingua cemetery.
Bill Ivey said it best, “She was very well cared for by the community, yet everyone respected her privacy and didn’t pry." “She’s the most famous unknown person I’ve ever known. That’s part of what this area is about."
"You can come out here and be who you want to be.”
UPDATE: A commentor wanted to know what became of Merle, the burro. One of Judy Magers' sons, Clay Gilman, took Merle to his home in McKittrick, California.
La Reina, Judy Freeman Magers - Died January 26th, 2007