Archive for August, 2015

Through the Heat

August 24, 2015

Through the Heat

July in Arizona Territory and the yellow sun, ringed with red, was trying relentlessly to set the wooden structures in the settlement of Black Star City ablaze. Summer on the desert floor felt like the underside of a frying pan over hot coals.

There had been only a smattering of silver ore in the mine and when it had played out most of the inhabitants had moved on to cooler climes. Only a few fools stayed on to farm.

The town consisted of one street. There was one saloon, the Double Quick, owned by Parker Crumpnagle. One general store, run by Cuthbert Tregg. One drug store, whose proprietor, Josiah Twyfords, was called “Doc.” He performed all the requisite medical care as though he were a real medical doctor, including tooth extractions and crude embalming for burial. And one church, Latter Day Saints, which sat glowering at the saloon on the other end of the street. There was no railway station; the stagecoach passed through once a week and might stop if the white cloth flag was flying.

Drusilla Gunkle was the widow of the manager of the defunct Consternation mine. She ran a boarding house just outside of town in the mansion her husband had built when times were flush. It served as a makeshift hotel.

Past the gingerbread festooned Gunkle place, a few pine log cabins housed ranch families. There were no fences, branding iron marks separated the cattle one from the other. The cows ranged freely over the low cactus scrub and chaparral. They were usually scrawny and stringy.

The newly formed San Felipe Apache Reservation housed only a few old men with multiple wives and crippled warriors who could no longer hunt. There were few children. The remainder of the tribe, in loosely formed bands, was still living in the wilderness as they always had. Except, now the men had rifles and ammunition, matches to build fires. The women had iron pots and cotton dresses. All wore long hair that had never felt scissors, and all resented the encroachment of the white settlers.

The two skin colors, red and white, hated each other. Tensions, thick as corded sinew, grew tauter and tauter.

On the splintery porch of Tregg’s grocery, a fly landed on Mrs Nell Bucklehorn’s wrist. It didn’t so much gracefully alight but simply fell from the sky. It extended a flat tongue and lapped a bead of sweat. Then, it crossed its front legs and bowed its head as if thanking some housefly god for its good fortune. Mrs Bucklehorn stood with her young son clutched onto her lower skirts. She held in her arms a cloth sack loosely filled with sundry notions: a spool of white thread, a bolt of cloth, some candles, a new wooden spoon. She was in a frugal mood and would not spend money for refined foods like flour or sugar.

“My boy here, has a bad cough. I think he has the croup,” she said to a soldier’s wife, Mrs Demetria Ritson. “Set up all night worryin’ ‘bout him.”

“Ye oughta take him over to Doc Twyfords. He‘s got some black strap molasses mixed with coal tar that’s good fer coughin’”

“Cain’t afford no medicine,” came the response.

Sitting on the floor of the porch, invisible to the white women, was an obese Apache woman named Tsai-shay-ky-naba. The name, unfortunately, translated as “coyote rump,” or more exactly coyote anus, so no one used her English name, but called her ”Naba,” which may have been the very word they were trying to avoid saying. She wore a filthy calico dress buttoned up tight at the neck and wrists. The missionary teachers were most emphatic about that. Previously, in heat like this, her mother probably went bare-chested like the men did. She had developed a poultice from prickly pear roots, which quite effectively drew out cactus spines embedded in the skin. Upon this miracle goo was founded her reputation as a medicine woman.

“I fix him cough,” she said.

The women were astonished she had spoken.

“I cain’t pay ye,” said Mrs Bucklehorn.

“No want money, gimme whiskey bottle.”

Mrs Bucklehorn considered this. She had no idea what a bottle of whiskey cost, but then she realized she wouldn’t have to keep a bargain with a dirty old Indian.

“All right, I reckon, give me something to cure him.”

From some hidden cache deep inside her dress, Naba produced a small buckskin pouch. She suddenly threw bright yellow powder at the boy’s face. Fine as dust and with a few golden flower petals amongst it, it was the pollen of a palo verde tree. It made the boy apoplectic with a sneezing fit. Tears filled his eyes and watered down his cheeks; his nose poured liquid and he began to cough. At first the same harsh, deep cough of the night before but soon the serous liquid lubricated his throat and he spat out huge gobs of phlegm. He began gasping for air His mother ran to him greatly concerned he was choking, but, no, he took a deep breath and looked up, smiling. His lungs were suddenly clear and he could breathe normally for the first time in several days.

“You get whiskey, huh?” asked Naba.

Mrs Bucklehorn was overjoyed with the miraculous change in her sick son. But as a good Morman she had never been in the Double Quick Saloon and was not about to change that pattern to buy whiskey for an Indian. She scooped up the little boy and placed him in the buckboard, turned her back to the squaw woman still sitting on the boards of the General Store and drove off to her cabin beyond town.

Weeks passed and the heat did not abate. The intense heat of summer eventually yielded to the shorter days of winter. Now the white sun gave light but not heat. Soon enough, however, the globe revolved and spring returned with its elevated temperature as if the atmosphere had a fever.

Tsai-shay-ky-naba had not forgotten she did not receive her promised whiskey. She became in the habit of protesting wildly to any white person that she had been cheated. When her antics became intolerable, the commandant of Ft Tarleton dispatched two cavalrymen to the reservation to investigate.

They did not find Naba but instead a young maiden in a long-fringed dress soon attracted probing fingers beneath her skirts. Her hair, silky and black as midnight, soon had the soldiers enthralled. Tribal elders looked on impotently. The pretty, young girl at first thought it was all a pleasant game. She already had a half-breed son, from a separate encounter with the long-knives, clinging to her knees. These particular soldiers were clumsy and crude. The game grew tiresome and she was forced to fend them off with carefully thrown rocks. The horse soldiers slunk off and returned to the fort.

They had been cavalrymen in the late Confederate Army. They were at Wilmington and Petersburg at the end of the war but never fought on the front, only as reserves. When peace came they returned to their homes in Georgia only to find them burned by Sherman’s men, their families murdered. They decided to wreak revenge by joining the Bluebellies Army and were posted in the far West. The revenge they hoped for did not come. There were no battles to sabotage, only a handful of filthy Indians to corral and wipe their noses. They felt the pangs of loneliness though, like a cold stone knife in their loins. When night fell the next day the men rode out to the reservation and found the wickiup of the girl they now called Bird Wing because of her raven feathered hair. An old woman and the boy were inside, a small fire spitting from the middle of the floor, so they dragged her out into the desert. They unfolded a blanket from the mud hut floor and on it spread pretty Bird Wing.

The heat from the day had been stored up in the dust of the ground and permeated through the rough blanket to her back. She showed no emotion as the soldiers performed quickly. She stared blankly up at the stars, the sparkling blue lights like the eyes of her ancestors looking down on her shame. In a short time it was over, but she remained staring upward long after the men left, too humiliated to move. Like all nights, this one ended when the sun peeked one golden ray between the distant peaks. Then the full glory of its light caused the stars to scurry off to their usual hiding places during the day. She wore only her high moccasins, buckskin-made and fringed like her dress. She found her discarded dress and walked the nine miles to Fort Tarleton. The fortified stockade gate was open and she marched in. An officer’s wife noticed her and approached:

“Do you speak English?”

Bird Wing could not comprehend “English,” and stood mute.The white woman spoke again slowly, loudly and deliberately, figuring the savage would understand a carefully enunciated sentence:

“What… do… you… want… here?”

“See long knives chief,” the Indian woman replied.

In Colonel Wigard’s office, Bird Wing glanced around. Her dark skin with its sheen of perspiration matched the polished mahogany of the desk.

“What does she want, Mrs Ritson?” the commandant inquired.

“She is making a complaint that two soldiers raped her, Colonel.”

“Hurrumph,” he patted his brow with a bandana handkerchief. He was unaccustomed to a woman using the word “rape” in polite company.

“Can’t see that that is a legitimate accusation, a native woman against US Army soldiers?”

“She is a woman, Colonel Wigard, Indian or not, a woman wronged and I aim to see justice done. Let her go up and down the ranks when the men are at muster and identify the culprits.”

Once the men were fingered they were placed under house arrest. Not in irons as common criminals but confined to barracks, after all raping an Indian wasn’t much of a crime. Nonetheless the two Rebs were thoroughly disgusted with this Federal Army. Just before first light they simply walked away, quiet as a breeze through the tall grass. Desertion was a serious crime but the men did not contemplate getting caught.

When July came again the persistent warmth had built up enough that all living things were stilled to inertness for fear of increasing body heat. In such circumstances, tempers could flare along with the temperature.

On a day when storm clouds began to congregate on the eastern horizon two men killed a woman of the other race and her son. It was not an accident. Words, more like grunts, had been exchanged and the perceived grievances not resolved as the huge parapet of language and culture could not be breached. The two did not think of themselves as killers, but they thought it best to run nonetheless. They had become drifters of a sort anyway and moving on seemed a wise act to do. They were accustomed to traveling in the wilderness and skilled at eking out an existence off the meager provision the land offered.

The banded rock stood up straight and tall. Some stones balanced precariously on others, like stacked eggs. Occasionally, the intense heat flaked off a chink of rock and sent it pinging down the canyon. The boulders were a color shirt-makers call ecru, a light tan, not quite white. The sky, though, was as white as boiling water. The sun threw down molten-iron rays that seemed to land with a weighty thud. A red-tail hawk, high in the thermals, was scribbling long ovals in the superheated air.

Midday, and the two men kept walking through the palpable heat. The heavy wool shirts they wore were like itchy sweatboxes. The sun had previously toasted their skin brown, but now the angry redness of burn was creeping through. Two men steadily moving along. Though the landscape was strewn with huge boulders, they could make out they were clambering down a long scree slope and ahead of them a vast playa unfolded. Like a true beach it was level and sandy with very little vegetation, a daunting task to cross. Perhaps they could find a resting place beyond; spend the night. They had no provisions: no water, no food, no bedrolls. So, they simply curled up against a boulder in the soft dust and were instantly asleep.

At first light they began again. They were, by now, far from Black Star City, Fort Tarleton, its inhabitants and the only law. Out here, away from civilization they might be safe. They felt they would not be molested now, but where were they going? They had been traveling southward, so Mexico lay somewhere ahead.

“Didn’t you once have a woman with relatives in Mexico?” asked the taller one.

“Yes, but that was so long ago I have forgotten her name.”

“Her name was Yolonda, you called her Londa,”

“Ah. Yes. I was forgetting on purpose. She could be loving one minute; a hateful shrew the next!”

The next night they saw yellow lights in the desert– a group of houses spilling burning-kerosene brightness onto the dust.

“There might be food and at least water there,” the first speaker said.

The shorter man was in agreement again, “Maybe, but should we chance it?”

When they neared the buildings, they dropped to their bellies and slowly crawled the remainder of the distance. They found a horse trough containing water still warm as tea from the broiling sun. It had a welcome wetness, though. The sharp smell of whiskey and beer and an off-key piano indicated a saloon. It was an enticing sweetness, but they steered well clear of that.

They could scour up no food, not even a half-chewed dog bone. They marched onward through the blackness of desert, lit only by the blue light of stars. When they had traveled a reassuring distance from the settlement, they bedded down.

The early light woke them. Even at this hour the sun held a heaviness of unbearable heat. The bolder, short man scampered up a nearby rock, like a ground squirrel, to reconnoiter. Looking back he saw only a vast desert, devoid of most life, only an occasional clump of sacaton grass or greasewood bush. Even the small settlement had dissolved into a wavering mirage. Climbing down, though, he looked ahead and saw a dark smudge on the horizon. They headed toward the shadowy blot, which turned out to be a clump of cottonwood trees of advanced age. These usually grew along a river course. Water, if the riverbed were not dried up.

The cooling shade of the gigantic, stately trees was welcome and the breeze beneath the leaves was cool. A moment before, on the roasting desert floor, that breeze was a singeing hot wind. They found dry fallen branches and with their knives, carried on their belts behind their waists, they shaved off some tinder and built a fire, striking their knife blade with a found flint. With other sticks they dug up riverbank plants and poked the tuberous roots into the coals. A well-thrown rock killed a lazy dove. Their first meal in several days and all the water they needed to rehydrate. It was heavenly. They loitered there until the next morning, luxuriating in their good fortune.

They started off on their trek again, the sun pounding ferociously down upon their heads. High, thin columns of yellow dust swirled into the sky—the rising thermals made visible. Each footlift and footfall was less difficult now, thanks to the brief respite under the cottonwoods. They were spanning many miles from back there. Back there, where they would not be welcome, was becoming more and more remote. They no longer belonged or wanted to belong to that community.

They did not see the two horsemen following them. They did not see the sunlight glint off metal, nor hear the tearing report of the rifles. They did not feel the red-hot bullets enter their backs. They were dead in an instant, falling face down in the desert dust. Ants from a nearby colony crawled into their noses to steal the minute amount of moisture to be found there.

When the riders reached the two dead men they dismounted.

“Damn fool Injuns,” one said, “How far did they think they could get afoot in this desert?”

The second man burst suddenly in tears:

“It don’t seem like no revenge, Zeke,” he said. “Them bastards killed my Nell and my boy! Burned my cabin and my crops and livestock. I thought shootin’ ‘em would make me feel better, but it don’t!”

“It’s allus like that, Algernon,” the first one said.