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Published on Thursday, March 23, 2012

Leavin' Clean

By Jim Lescher

 

They almost caught me out in the open.

The nagging little voice in my head made me hold up at the far end of the pass that led down off the plateau and out onto the plain. The 'nagging little voice' was that of Hosteen Begay, a Navajo who helped me with round ups and whenever I needed extra help around my place. He had said something didn't feel right the last time I had seen him. When Begay tells me something ain't right, I listen.

   

Couple days later, I noticed a roan bull was not with the herd. I had to check up on the plateau to see if some of my missing cattle might have wandered back up there. I didn't run a big spread only a couple hundred head, so even a couple steers were a big deal to me.

I left Esteban and Carmelita back at our ranch, took a bedroll, some grub and an extra canteen and headed out. It wasn't unusual to lose a couple head, but not to see some buzzards or find a carcass was a bad sign. It meant rustlers.

We grazed about half the herd up there in the summer after they took off the spring grass on the lower bench around the ranch. We brought them back down in the fall when the rains returned.

The plateau was cleaner'n' a preacher's conscience.

When I got back down to the pass, I dismounted and started building me a smoke. Before I lit a match, I smelled something. It wasn't a clean scent. The odor made me cautious. I guess my lollygagging gave 'em itchy trigger fingers.

Just as I turned to take my Winchester out of the saddle boot, a rifle fired. The shot missed me, but caught my horse in the flank. The horse was stung hard and started prancing, trying to yank free of the reins I was holding. I didn't want to be afoot with unknown hostiles about so I swung up into the saddle as additional shots peppered the rocks around me.

There wasn't another way down on horseback, but I wanted to know who I was up against so I lit out for the far end of the plateau. Three Apaches came screaming out of the pass followed by three men wearing sombreros. My horse had been hit and a full out gallop was not what she needed. I saw blood streaming down her flanks. My paint tired rapidly, in less than a mile she started stumbling, plumb wore out. I kicked out of the stirrups as I spilled out of the saddle. I still had about thirty yards to the edge of the plateau. It was going to be a close thing to see if I could make it before they rode me down.

I reached the end of the plateau before them Apache sharpshooters brought me down. Because I knew the area, when I reached the edge, I took flight. Hope it's the last time I'll ever have to. I started losing control of my descent and let go of my Winchester. No sense surviving the attack to be killed by the fall.

Lost my Colt when I splashed into a deep pool. I came up sputtering as the current took me downstream toward the Rio Grande. I didn't struggle against the current, just pointed my boots downstream and enjoyed the ride. I knew I had a long walk ahead of me.

All I had was clothes, boots and my Bowie knife.

It kinda' upset me that I'd lost a good cow pony, at least several head of cattle, my Winchester and Colt to them damn Comancheros. But all those things could be replaced. My Scottish Granddaddy always told me, "Revenge is a thin, cold soup. It might keep you alive, but it'll nae warm you and nae satisfy whatever hungers you."

I was worried for Carmelita and Esteban. I'd grown up with Esteban. He was my 'Amigo', I was his 'Companero.' We had survived the battle of Glorieta Pass and several other skirmishes in the War Between The States by making sure we covered each other's back.

We returned from the war and began to build a herd, a ranch and a life. Esteban had married Carmelita. Naturally, I was his best man. Carmelita had a smile bright as noonday sun, a fella could almost take a bath in the warmth of it. Made my day whenever she'd beam a smile my way. And I can only imagine how lucky Esteban felt wakin' up to one each morning.

They had what ya' might call a hunger for each other. It was kinda' sweet watchin' how they politely found ways to always be touching one another; 'accidentally' bumpin' into each other settin' or clearin' the dinner table, hugging behind the horse 'fore we'd ride out. They had a hankerin' to start a family. I wanted to see them happy on the ranch with a mess a' laughing kids. Now I wasn't there to cover him.

Turns out I wasn't worried half enough.

 

*         *        *

 

I stuck close to the river until I got to the fork where Chisolm's Creek led back to my ranch. It was almost full dark when I got there.

Almost.

Firelight from our ranch house burning filled the canyon with a flickering orange glow. I made my way very slowly and carefully skirted around their campfire. I saw the six of 'em passing a bottle.

In the dancing glow, on the back side of ranch house, I almost tripped over the smoking carcass that used to be Esteban. The charred skin of his face was drawn into a horrible rictus, a death head. Like Esteban had enjoyed being hung upside down over a low fire until his brain liquefied and ran out his ears.

That was bad enough, but what I found next drove a cold spike through my heart. I heard a low moaning coming from behind some saguaro cactus where Carmelita had planted her garden.

They'd drug her here, cut a hole in her stomach and pulled her intestines out. They tied 'em to one of the saguaros. Wolves and coyotes up on the ridges were calling to each other about the scent they'd picked up. Ominously, the howls were getting closer.

I crept up behind her silently and put my hand over her mouth. Her eyes blinked open and she tried to scream before she finally recognized me.

When I removed my hand, she feverishly pleaded with me to kill her. She told me they made Esteban watch as they broke her arms and legs and staked her spread eagle, so she wouldn't struggle, before they 'shamed' her. They made her watch as they killed Esteban.

Then, they made her wolf bait.

She pleaded for me to be merciful, to end her torture, release her from the pain. There wasn't no doctor on this earth could repair all they done to her.

There's some bad things in life just got to be done.

I told her I loved her and Esteban and wished her Godspeed. She smiled through her tears of pain and closed her eyes for the last time. I put my hand over her mouth and drew my Bowie knife across her throat. I felt her body contort and involuntarily shudder. It stopped and I knew she rested in the arms of the angels.

And my heart turned to stone.

Up 'til now it was just about things. Things that could be replaced. Now, lives had been taken. Lives cain't be replaced.

But someone was damn sure going to pay for killing my best friend and making me kill that good woman. There was 'n' ugly bug crawlin' 'neath my skull. My head hurt bad from the things I'd seen.

An' those things I was about to do.

 

*         *        *

 

The Apache was on all fours drinking straight out of the creek to cool his hot pipes after a night of drinking my whiskey. Maybe, if they hadn't burned my well, he'd still be alive. You can guard against things you think might happen. He never expected forty pounds of granite coulda' dropped outta' the sky. His skull made a dull pop, kinda like a wet firecracker. His legs twitched a while, but his head was pretty well pegged to the bottom of the creek. Pretty sure it was his busted skull and not drowning that sent him to Hell.

I silently thanked my Granddaddy for insistin' that I learn and practice the Stone Put for Highland games as all the Gordon's before me had done. The Highland Games feature feats of strength that an a pastoral Scottish people would use around their farms. They also became cover for martial drills after the English conquered and disarmed the Scots. That toss made sense of it all, made all the hours of practicing it worthwhile.

Luckily, the Apache had brought his Winchester with him for protection. It didn't help him none at all. I took it and aimed to see it help send his friends to join him in Hell.

I stripped him of his shirt and bandolier of cartridges. I tied him face down to a pine log and pushed the log out into the stream. He wouldn't bloat because I ventilated his lungs and stomach with my knife. I didn't want his friends finding him just yet.

Rattlers get sluggish when evening temperatures cool. I knew about one of their rocky dens a bit up the river. The stones soak up heat during the day and release it at night. The rattlers weren't the only cold-blooded killers in these parts tonight. By the light of a full moon, I pinned three behind the head with a forked stick and was able to get them tied up into the shirt I stripped off the dead Apache.

There were pinion pines about twenty feet away from the Comancheros campfire close to the trail up from the creek. I loosened the knot keeping the rattlers in and set down the shirt. When the rattlers crawled out, I grabbed 'em behind the head and flung 'em into the circle of sleeping Comancheros. One landed across the legs of one of the Mexicans. The snake was a mite feisty and sank fangs into his thigh. It rudely, instantly sobered the Mex up enough to jump up and start throwing lead at it. The others woke and started shooting, 'bout like you'd expect a bunch of drunks to shoot. In all the commotion, one of 'em put a chunk of lead right square in the brisket of one of them Mexican fellers.

  

When the snakes was dead, one of the other Mex carved an X into the snakebite and tried to suck out the venom. Even if he got most of it, the one bitten was gonna' be sick for several days. It took some time 'fore they realized the third Mex was down for the count. They all started blaming one another for the killing. I didn't stick around to find out who won the blame game. 'Sides I knew it was just a matter of time 'til they figured out the Apache I turned into the only Flathead in these parts was missing. When people get jumpy, they're hard to sneak up on.

 

*         *        *

 

All entrances to Navajo hogans face east just like the head stones in Christian graveyards. Navajos treasure the gift of first light, the promise of a new day ever since they emerged from three dark underworlds into the Glittering World. It's the Navajo custom that visitors wait outside a hogan until they are acknowledged and welcomed by the owner. Hosteen Begay did not make me wait long.

"Ya' at' eeh, Nakai Gordon."

"Ya' at eeh, Hosteen Begay."

"I thought it was only the Dineh who make the Long Walk. What brings a bela'gaana with many horses to my hogan on foot, wearing no hat, with no water, only a rifle?"

While I'd been fighting the War Between The States, the Navajos had been force marched to the Basque Redondo. About two thousand of an estimated ten to twelve thousand Navajos died. Hosteen Begay lost his wife and two sons.

"Chindi, devils, walk about. They have killed Esteban and Carmelita. I have come to borrow a Lii. I need a horse so I can track them down. I will not live among unclean spirits."

"It is true. I have felt the presence of Etsay-Hashkeh, the coyote, the trickster, the bringer of trouble. I am sorry for the loss of our friends. I will make a gift to you of one of my horses, a hat, canteen. You must not bring these back for they will bring the Chindi back with them. For these gifts, when you have finished with these walking Chindis, we must do a Blessing Way ceremony to cleanse you of these spirits."

The Navajos give a Blessing Way ceremony to all young men returning from war. It restores the beauty, harmony, success, order and well-being to a life. Hosteen Begay saw my heart was filled with venom worse than any rattler's.

 

*         *        *

 

I knew the fever would make it hard for him to stay awake. A pulse pounded in his snakebit, swollen leg which made it agonizing for him to stay in the saddle. He probably figured if he could just rest for a few blessed moments with his back against the rocks by the little pool of the seep, he could catch up later when the temperatures cooled. The sombrero he had pulled over his eyes fell onto his lap. I had used a long tree branch to push it off his head. He reached forward to retrieve it.

It was then that my riata dropped over his head and I jerked it tight around his windpipe. The constriction of his throat made it impossible for him to call out. He heard the soft pad of an Indian pony's unshod hooves on the ledge above him as he was hauled upward.

His feet left the ground as his hands frantically fought to loosen the killing cord. His boots danced frantically in midair. The pressure in his head forced his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, his lungs burned as they starved for oxygen. His mouth silently opened and closed as he tried to beg for the mercy he had denied Carmelita and Esteban.

But mercy had fled my heart. His eyes were wide open, my cold, satisfied smile the last thing he saw, as the darkness crept horribly, slowly into his field of vision and everlasting night agonizingly descended.

 

*         *        *

 

The cattle were tired, thirsty and sore from being pushed hard all day. They had picked up the slight sense of panic from the men driving them. Instead of letting them water in the river, they were driven into a dry box canyon about a quarter mile long. The remaining Comancheros had set up camp at the mouth of the canyon and butchered and roasted a calf. The scent of blood and wood smoke just served to increase the unease the cattle felt and they milled the length of the canyon. Heads butted and flanks were scratched by horns, calves bawled and bulls roared.

The Mexican on watch was exhausted from a long day in the saddle, the effects of the hangover, and a bad case of nerves stemming from being alone and outnumbered by Apaches. When he said he wanted to go find his missing compadre, they just laughed. They were happy there was one less to share whatever the cattle fetched down in Mexico. If he wanted to leave, the Apaches would take his share too.

I watched as his head bobbed and finally came to rest on his chest. While I waited for him to sleep, I pried the lead from three bullets and packed wadding into the shells to hold the powder. I loaded the blanks into the Winchester and real rounds followed. I walked to the back of the ledge at the end of the canyon.

Cattle ain't exactly pets, but they were more familiar with my scent than the Comancheros. I still had to watch out for the horns as I herded them cattle toward the mouth of the canyon.

When I had 'em packed nice and tight about twenty yards from the campfire, I pointed the Winchester at the rump of a bull at the back of the herd. When I fanned the lever firing the three blanks, flames spurted out singeing the hide. The sudden noise and stench of burning hide put the whole dang herd into a stampede.

I jumped up on a boulder to make sure I'd have a clean shot at anyone trying to escape. One of them Apaches almost made it to a horse before the avalanche of cattle buried him beneath frantic hooves. Not saying all two hundred head ran over 'em. But it don't take too many six hundred pound beeves steppin' on you to turn a body into a bloody pudding.

Making my way toward their camp, I noticed the sun just breaking above the desert. Destarte, that's what Hosteen Begay calls it. I found three piles of puree of pulp and clothes as light began to flood the desert over the tops of the Sangre De Cristo mountains.

Suddenly, I felt incredibly exhausted. I felt empty, hollow as a jack o' lantern. I'd have to catch a horse and round up a herd scattered all over Hell's half acre. The loss of Esteban and... Suddenly I sat and tried to choke down sobs that had come unbidden.

Granddaddy was mostly right. I felt terrible for having lost my two closest friends and there weren't no way around it. But I'll be damned if sending them six to eternal torment didn't make me feel some better.

Now I needed to round up and herd the cattle back to my range. I had to rebuild my house, barn, well and fences. But mostly, I needed Hosteen Begay to find a singer for my Blessing Way.

I had loosed three acts of darkness. I needed to reenter the Glittering World. 'Stead of revenge, 'stead of death, I needed to look to life.

I needed to sit in the sweat bath with a Singer blessing me with sacred corn pollen, and listen to the rhythmic beat of a pot drum as the cleansing words washed over me and restored balance to my life,

"In the house made of dawn,
in the house made of evening twilight,
in the house made of dark clouds,
happily may he walk in beauty.
In beauty may he walk,
with beauty above him, he walks.
With beauty all around him, he walks.
With beauty it is finished.
With beauty it is finished."

THE END

 

James Lescher lives in Northern Illinois. After graduation from college, he worked on a farm in Missouri. On weekends he led trail rides for city slickers like himself. It was a necessarily quick education and gave him an insight and abiding appreciation for what life might have been like as America was settled.

 

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