Lt. Miguel Castellanos tightened his grip on the reins and shuffled the sleeves of his thick blue coat. Thankfully his coat was big enough to cover his fingers, mostly. He turned with a stern face to the little girl at his side. The Navajo child was about ten years old and shivered slightly, even with her thick Navajo blanket as well as Castellanos' scarf and gloves. She returned his gaze with equal sternness. She didn't like him either, but knew he was all she had.
A week earlier the child and her mother had stumbled into Santa Fe. The woman's fingers and toes were blue from frostbite, having given up her own mittens and moccasins for her daughter's warmth. No doubt she was one of many scattered Navajo hold-outs who refused to turn themselves over to General Carson earlier that year. Castellanos was recovering in the local hospital himself when the mother and child arrived, both deathly ill and half-starved. The little one recovered but her mother passed within a day. If she shed any tears they were never seen and she never spoke a word in English or her own tongue.
"All this for petulant Indian stubbornness!" Castellanos had huffed from his bed as he watched the child sitting alone in silence. She ate the food that was brought to her but offered the young orderly who brought it no gratitude. "Prideful fools! All of them!" the Lieutenant had grumbled. Such were his sentiments of all Indians.
Born in Florida, Castellanos had lost his own parents and siblings to a rampaging Seminole war party. His family had lived in costal Florida ever since the 1760s. The Castellanos had never been a wealthy family, but a strong one; wood cutters and carpenters. All but him were wiped out in one night!
His mother had tried to make a run for it with his tiny frame in her arms. Though only a toddler at the time, Castellanos remembered that night vividly and often awoke from nightmares of it. He remembered a musket shot through a window, his father returned fire only to catch a ball in the chest and topple over in a bloody heap. A flaming arrow entered the shattered window. Smoke and flames from the roof above denoted even more incendiary missiles. His older brothers roared with fury and fired their own muskets and pistols. Mother scooped little Miquel up in her arms and dashed through the front door with frenzied whimpers. Castellanos remembered her arms clamped desperately around him, the terror in her panting voice as she sprinted towards the shadows of the forest. He heard the musket cracks and felt the balls whistling over them. Then another crack and he felt the impact of the ball, then his mother's weight as she tumbled atop him. The little toddler was too shocked and too frightened to cry out. The wounded mother was whimpering even harder than ever. Footfalls were approaching fast.
"Do not make a sound, my little darling! Please do not make a sound!" were the last coherent words the little child ever heard from his mother. And he obeyed. Even as her head was pulled back by a whooping warrior. Even as a knife cleaved flesh atop her head. Even as the warrior howled like a coyote and his mother wailed like a wounded beast before collapsing atop him. The little child remained silent through the night, even as the warmth left his mother's body and somehow he knew she would never wake up. He spoke not a word the next morning when a militiaman in buckskins turned her body over to reveal the trembling child. He could not even speak when the militiaman brought him to an Army officer. Castellano couldn't remember speaking for days, perhaps weeks.
He remembered the Army officer clearly though. A young officer, a lieutenant. His uniform was crisp and clean. His sandy blonde hair shone in the sun, his blue eyes were soft and friendly. He leaned down to gently clasp the toddler's shoulder.
"Be strong, child," he said in Spanish. "And have faith, today is Christmas," he finished with a sad smile.
Castellanos never forgot the officer, or his words. Even as a small child, he knew he wanted to be that man. He enlisted in the U.S. Army the moment he was old enough to successfully lie about his age. He rose through the ranks fast, and won a battlefield commission for bravery at the Battle of Val Verde. After riding with Carson in his reluctant campaign to inter the Navajo, Castellano fell ill at Fort Sumner. What began as a bout of digestive stress became a deathly sickness. Upon learning of Lt. Castellanos' ailment, Major General James H. Carleton, military governor of New Mexico, ordered he be moved to the more suitable hospital in Santa Fe, where he would receive the best treatment. Anything for the man who stood his ground alone in the face of a Confederate cavalry charge, firing two Colt pistols furiously into the onslaught of traitors!
The sickly Lieutenant arrived in Santa Fe in early November and was laid up for weeks. He was nearly recovered when the frostbitten Navajo woman and her shivering child arrived. Castellanos could find little pity for them. If they had surrendered and come to Fort Sumner with them they would have been better off, he told himself. Memories of the sickly Navajo, many struck by the same illness as he was burned at his mind every time he scorned the woman and child for their stubbornness. His anger grew stronger in defiance of the truth.
Castellanos loathed Indians. Had never forgiven them for what happened to his family. Refused to acknowledge his own pity for the little one as she sat silently in her bed for days after her mother's passing. In every Indian of every tribe he had encountered since joining the Army, all he ever saw was the violence and savagery of that night in Florida. His mother's wails after being skinned alive, his father's bloodied corpse, his brothers bravely fighting to the fiery end! He knew his mother would despise his hatred, and scorn his abandoning the faith of his fathers. But his heart was hardened. Even as November ended, his fever lifted, and Christmas fast approached. What little tenderness he could find for that lonely Navajo girl was crushed beneath years of scorn and contempt.
Five days before Christmas, General Carleton summoned Castellanos to his headquarters. He casually entered the large, stately building that had once been the mayor's manor, knocked respectfully on the office door, and entered when called. Stood firmly at attention before the desk of the most powerful man in the state and crisply saluted. The general returned his salute and commanded he stand at ease.
"How are you feeling, Lieutenant?" Carleton politely asked.
"Very well, sir," Castellanos answered. "I do believe I have made a full recovery. If the general wishes I will gladly return to my post at Fort Sumner." Carleton's face twisted in shame. Castellanos cursed himself for bringing it up. He had read the newspapers, knew what a nightmare the conditions had become at the internment camp. Some blamed the crops failing, others blamed the Comanche for raiding the supply wagons, but the cold truth was the camp was desperately low on food. Carleton had put out pleads for any food that could be spared to save the starving Navajo. Ironically, people who would not be starving had he left them alone. Even Castellanos couldn't help but feel the pangs of remorse, which at once ignited his defiance and contempt for the Indians. But he kept all this to himself.
"No," Carleton answered after a long silence. "That will not be necessary. In fact, the Army has need of you here, Lieutenant," the general went on, a degree of military bearing returned to his voice.
"Of course, sir," Castellanos stiffened. "Anything, sir."
"Good man," Carleton nodded. "You recall that orphan Navajo girl who has been staying in the hospital all this time?" Castellanos nodded. "After careful consideration I have decided not to send her to Fort Sumner. She will instead be sent to stay with the Sisters of Saint Claire, a convent outside Taos. They have generously agreed to take the child in. If you leave tomorrow you should reach them by sundown on Christmas Eve. I'm certain the Sisters won't mind putting you up for the night. And on that note, by way of thanks to the Sisters, you will also be delivering a turkey for them, a local business man gifted it to me in the spirit of the season but I find I have little stomach this season. The Sisters have already donated graciously to feed the Navajo, they will need that bird more than I do. You will deliver both the child and the turkey and then report back to me."
Castellanos stiffened to attention. "Yes, sir. It will be done."
"Good man, I knew I could count on you! You'll receive your official orders in the morning, a wagon will be waiting for you. It will already be loaded with the turkey. The orderly will also be waiting for you with the child. She still will not, or cannot, speak but she responds to the Indian sign language. It happens our orderly, Private Isaacs learned the sign language years ago as a child."
"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the sign language, sir."
"Not to worry. Private Isaacs will instruct the girl to go with you and obey you. She has not been a problem, I'm sure she will behave for you. The poor girl," Carleton's voice trailed off in sorrow. Moments of silence later he cleared his throat. "Right then. You'll be off first thing in the morning so you'd best get some rest."
"Yes, sir," Castellanos snapped off a salute, then pivoted on his heel and exited the office.
The next morning went as planned. The wagon was hitched outside headquarters and loaded with the turkey and a sack of biscuits to sustain the two riders. Private Isaacs and the girl, still shivering in the same clothes and wrapped in the same blanket as the day she arrived, were waiting beside the wagon. The orderly handed him his official orders and hand-signed the girl instructions. The girl turned to Castellanos without a word. He returned her gaze for a few awkward moments then knelt to lift her up into the cart. She offered no resistance. Once she was loaded, Private Isaacs wished him luck.
"Thanks," Castellanos nodded. "Why hasn't she been given a scarf or proper gloves?" he asked.
"She was offered but wouldn't accept them." Isaacs answered. Castellanos turned to her with a sigh. She stared obstinately ahead, as if blind and deaf.
"Stubborn, foolish, prideful, Indians!" Castellanos grumbled. He climbed aboard the cart, returned Isaac's salute, snapped the reins and was off. The white horse trampled down the frozen road and out of the town. Ahead of them was three days travel through rough and hilly wilderness, with small villages to stop at each night.
The wind howled into Castellanos' ears, cutting right through his scarf. New Mexico, and much of the Southwest, was known for softer winters. This year was different. Even at Fort Sumner Castellanos had sensed it. A bitter sting in the chilled winds. Maybe it was the war. Reports from back east described General Grant's campaign against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The mounting casualties, the "perfect slaughter" at Cold Harbor, the chaos and carnage of "the Crater" at Petersburg. The war had gotten plenty bloody in the west, Castellanos had lost many good men at Val Verde. Then the campaigns against the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo. General Carson was still on the campaign trail against the Comanche even as the girl and he shivered in the cold. Hearts had grown cold. Why should the weather be any different?
A soft gasp came from his right and Castellanos turned to see the girl rubbing her thinly gloved hands together and pressing them to her ears. The lieutenant rolled his eyes and furiously unraveled his scarf. He quickly but gently wrapped it around the girl's neck and draped it over her ears once she removed her hands. She blinked up at him in apprehension.
"Shut up and wear it," he snapped at her. She stared blankly at him a moment then turned away. Castellanos smirked, his days as a sergeant before winning his commission had taught him how to get a point across regardless of language.
As the hours went by in tedium, Castellanos noticed her hands trembling beneath her thin buckskin mittens. He could feel the cold gnawing through his own gloves. His burning pride forbid him to give them up. Remembering some winters of the past he had managed without such fine gloves, compassion won over contempt. He removed his gloves and held them out in front of her. She looked at them blankly then turned to him, he returned her gaze sternly. Moments later she snatched the gloves and buried her hands in them without a word.
"You're welcome," Castellanos grumbled as he turned back to the road.
The next three days dragged on as the cart bounced and rattled over frozen dirt. Kindly cantina keepers allowed them rooms both nights of the journey. Adoring cantina keeper's wives took pity on the girl and fed her without charge. Word of the desperate plight of the Navajo had reached even the small Mexican villages. The local Senoras smiled and wished the girl "Feliz Navidad!" Some even treated her to sweets, which prompted rare smirks from the girl. The festive nature of the season evidently made the locals forget that her father and older brothers likely robbed them all in years past.
Both nights Castellanos was embarrassed to know so little Spanish. He had forsaken his native tongue along with the faith of his fathers. Maybe it was an urge to forget that night so many Christmases ago. Abandoning his former life in hopes of forgetting it all. But he never could forget and he never would.
* * *
On the third day, Christmas Eve, the hilltop convent was within sight by noon; about a mile away. In the distance Castellanos could make out the adobe walls and the bell tower. He turned to the girl who still stared blankly ahead, her hands in his gloves and her ears wrapped in his scarf. Still hadn't uttered a word to him. He found he was actually sad she would not even greet him in the morning. Castellanos nearly groaned in disgust at Indian stubbornness but found he could not say the words. Pity had managed a small crack in his hardened heart. Although she gave no indication she understood a word of English, he could not bring himself to curse or disparage her people anymore.
Perhaps it was having seen and cared for her these past few days. Giving her swigs from his canteen, handing her biscuits from the bag, stopping the wagon and waiting after she'd tap his shoulder and point to her pelvis in the universal sign of needing the privy. Maybe it was knowing the state of her people at Fort Sumner. Suffering strict rations of food, indecent bargains made with lecherous troopers in exchange for extra rations, whole families trampling out of their shelters after loved ones died and refusing to reenter even once the corpses were removed; some superstitious fear of dead bodies that made it impossible for the Spanish Missionaries to make them kneel before the crucifix. Perhaps the Indians were just too different. Maybe General Carson was right, the Indians required separation from whites to survive, not Carleton's forced integration. A sigh escaped Castellanos' lips, it was out of his control.
The lieutenant tensed at the sight of another phenomenon he could not control. Seven figures on horseback emerged from atop a rise next to the upcoming bend in the road. A light mist of dust went up in the chilled air, sending a wave of foreboding dread through Castellanos. A quick glance at the girl showed her blink in surprise, then her eyes twitched in something Castellanos recognized as fear. His fingers tightened on the reins as paternal protectiveness boiled his blood for the first time in his life. He reined the horse to a halt and cast his cold glare at the oncoming interlopers.
His blood cooled and his breathing eased as he recognized the blue uniforms of the horsemen. Union soldiers. Perhaps a patrol sent out to the area. Castellanos wondered why Carleton hadn't mentioned them. Then the horsemen closed within ten yards and he saw the carnivorous leers on their unshaven faces, red stains, missing buttons, and holes worn into their unkempt uniforms. Grotesque necklaces lined with human ears, fingers, and toes adorned their necks. If they were Union men, they were the wrong kind of volunteers.
"Afternoon there, soldier!" the leader called out as they came to a stop in front of the wagon. A tall man with dark hair and a nose that reminded Castellanos of a hawk. The leader paused to squint at Castellanos for a moment then stiffened slightly to give a flimsy salute, his cohorts aped his moves. "Sorry, there, sir! We ain't got a spy glass, couldn't tell who you was from so far out." Castellanos returned their salute sharply. "Don't mind our asking, what brings you out here, Lieutenant?" Before Castellanos could answer, one of the men let out a whooping laugh and slowly drew nearer. Like the leader, he had dark hair but his face more resembled a slobbering dog.
"Looks like a Mexican, Reuben!" he snickered. "Must be a deserter! Them cowardly little Spaniards couldn't even whoop them Rebels who killed Joe and Judah year before last!" The leering horsemen put his hand his six-shooter.
"I'm no Mexican," Castellanos grunted. "I'm Lieutenant Miguel Castellanos, 1st Dragoons, and I was born in Florida." His voice carried the same country drawl most soldiers spoke. What little accent he had as a child vanished years ago. The dog-faced soldier rolled his eyes.
"My! What a pretty little accent you've got there, boy! And with a name like that!" the man went on with a howling laugh.
"Easy there, Levi!" the leader called out. "We're all on the same side here!" Levi snorted in disapproval but shut his mouth. "My younger brother speaks out of turn, Lieutenant, but he means well. Never know who you can trust these days. I'm Lieutenant Reuben Jacobson of the Third Colorado Cavalry Volunteers," he said, straightening himself as if to appear more distinguished. Only succeeded in look a greater madman with the grizzly decorations on his filthy uniform. "These here are my brothers, Levi, Gad, Asher, Dan, Ben, and Simeon," all the siblings nodded at the sound of their names. Castellanos gazed back at them in silent suspicion.
"Hell! There used to be twelve of us! Like the tribes of Israel! Ma and Pa named us all for them!" jeered Levi. "But them Johnny Rebs killed Joseph and Judah at Glorieta Pass! All the rest with them long and funny sounding names, they died fighting them godless Cheyenne!" Levi paused to spit over his shoulder. "But we got them back, measure for measure!" he finished with a hungry grin full of yellow teeth.
"He means we rode with Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek," Reuben clarified. "Hardly a month ago, all the death and destruction they inflicted on us and ours whilst we was heading off the Rebels down here, we repaid them ten-fold!" he paused to finger his nightmarish neckless. What made Castellanos' blood run cold was how naturally he did so, as if the practice was perfectly acceptable!
"Hell! Those ain't the only trophies we got us neither!" Levi chuckled like a chicken before pulling a small pouch from his pocket, what looked like a leather change purse. Looking closely Castellanos strained himself not to let his stomach heave! "Governor Evans tried to stop us too, but we followed Colonel Chivington; a fine man, a preacher. We showed them savages! Didn't we, brothers?" All grunted in agreement. "You ain't an Injun lover, are you?"
"Hardly," Castellano growled. Levi blinked in surprise.
"We is coming down to these parts to continue the holy work we started at Sand Creek," Reuben continued. "We hear-tell you got you some troubles with Navajo and Comanche."
"Navajo surrendered," Castellanos cut him off. "And Carson can handle the Comanche." Again Levi clucked like a chicken, equally obnoxious laughs came from every Jacobson brother but Reuben, whose face remained stoic.
"The hell with Carson!" Levi whooped. "We got Chivington! Ain't no Missouri backwoods Mexican-lover can compare with our 'Fighting Parson' after Sand Creek!" Castellanos resisted the urge to argue with the madman. Arrogant fools like him had tried to conquer the Navajo for centuries and failed, only Carson had ever been victorious!
"Again my brother speaks out of turn," Reuben grunted before ignoring Levi's scowl. "But we are on a holy mission, a crusade against the savages! I can see in your eyes, Lieutenant, you think us mad," he paused for Castellanos to deny it, he didn't. "But you will see in time, all shall," he finished with the soft certainty of a prophet. The horror-frozen blood in Castellanos' veins came to a boil. Even the loudest, vilest, most insufferable fire-and-brimstone preachers he had ever heard never spouted such insanity!
"Why bless me!" Levi gasped as he leaned towards the Navajo girl beside Castellanos. "We got a little red whelp here, brothers!" he cried. "I thought for sure she was a little Mexican pup, but lo and behold that there is a Navajo blanket if I ever saw one!" Castellanos stopped himself from sighing a long-winded curse.
"It is a Navajo!" gasped one of the other Jacobson brothers.
"As I live and breathe!" hissed another.
"Our first catch of the day!" another laughed.
"What you doing all the way out here with a little Injun whelp?" Levi giggled. Again his hand was on his gun.
"Orders!" Castellanos snapped. "General Carleton says she's to be entrusted to the Sisters of Saint Claire, at the convent just up yonder," he nodded ahead to the adobe building barely a mile away. Again Levi chuckled, Castellanos would have given anything to snap his poultry neck!
"Papists tramps!" his leering smile became a snarl. "You all remember the one thing our daddy hated more than Injuns?" he rhetorically asked his kin. "Papists! Is that what you are, Lieutenant Castellanos? A Papist?" The Jacobson brother's grip tightened on the butt of his pistol. Castellanos fixed his eyes with a glare that would melt iron.
"Once," he growled.
"Once a Papist, always a Papist," Levi sneered. The other Jacobson brothers readied to draw.
"So I've been told," Castellanos shrugged. "Is this what 'crusaders' do? Gun down soldiers and helpless half-frozen girls?"
"Aww," Levi cooed in mock-concern at the girl. "There, there little Philly! Your troubles will be over soon!" The girl's face was blank as a blackboard as his mouth curved into a disgusting leer.
"We came to rid this fine land of Injuns," Reuben cut his brother off with authority. "Hand the child over to us, and she won't be any Christian people's problem, not even Catholics."
"Orders, Lieutenant!" Castellanos snapped at Reuben. "General Carleton says she goes to the convent, she goes to the convent! He'll be very displeased with you disregarding his orders."
"Whoever says he's going to find out?" Levi chuckled.
"The last people who defied General Carleton are starving and freezing to death at Fort Sumner!" Castellanos sneered, still facing Reuben. "Brave his wrath at your own peril!" Reuben blinked.
"That being the case, he just might promote me for sparing those poor women the trouble," he replied coolly, prompting a round of chuckles from his siblings.
"Anyway, who's to stop us from taking the little tramp?" Levi clucked. "One little Florida soldier? Or you got you some Mexican friends around these parts?" Castellanos turned to him with a menacing smirk.
"Wouldn't under-estimate them, if I were you," he said. "Especially when they're twice your number." Levi blinked in confusion.
"Who's twice our number?" he demanded.
"The Mexican Volunteers coming up behind you," Castellanos nodded up the road beyond the Jacobsons. Levi's eyes widened.
"BEHIND US!" he needlessly wailed as his brothers and he reeled their horses around whilst drawing their revolvers. Levi and the others blinked through the kicked-up dust in confusion. No one was coming up behind them!
Levi was just spinning around to curse Castellanos when a bullet blew what little brains he had out the back of his skull. An instant later another Jacobson went down with a shot. The horses jumped and reared at the sudden cacophony. Giving Castellanos just enough time to grapple the girl and leap from the wagon. Crippling pain shot through his arms as he they hit the dirt. He was careful not to let his weight crush her.
Several curses and shots rang out as the Jacobson brothers reined in their horses. Castellanos stood quickly, thumbed back both hammers and downed two more deranged volunteers. Bullets grazed overhead as he ducked then fired twice more, killing another and downing a horse. The Jacobson brother wailed for help beneath the weight of his fallen mare. Reuben fired back wildly with a vengeful war cry then leapt from his horse just in time to dodge a bullet. Castellanos downed Reuben's horse with another shot then turned to scoop up the girl and lit out into the wilderness.
The dragoon officer's mind raced as he trampled over jagged rocks and weaved between cacti. He'd get to one of the bigger boulders for cover. Wait for them to come running. As far as those lunatics were concerned he was running scared. It would probably be at least a minute for Reuben to drag his brother free of that fallen mare. Then they'd be after him! Castellanos prayed he was right. A gunshot and crippling pain announced the rebuke of his prayer.
Lieutenant Castellanos dropped like a sack of potatoes in the dirt. He lay motionless as the last of the Jacobson clan approached. "Good shot, Dan," Reuben hissed as he grappled control of his temper.
"Hell! Looks like he's dead! I wanted to make him squeal like a pig for what he done to our brothers!" Dan huffed. "Think the Injun pup's alive?"
"Only one way to find out!" Reuben seethed. The maddened Colorado volunteer calmly kicked the downed dragoon over. Two gunshots thundered and the last two Jacobson brothers fell in the dirt. A gasped curse echoed amid the rocks and cacti.
Castellanos sat up in sluggish agony. The bullet had struck his back, slightly to the left. He had no trouble breathing, as was apparent by his painful moans. Nor was there an exist wound. He figured it was lodged between two ribs. Another sound caught his ear, sniffles coming from the trembling figure in his lap. He blinked at the Navajo girl, her tear-soaked eyes locked with his. Before he could say anything she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his torso. A wave of pain shot through Castellanos but he gave no objection. Seconds later his fingers went slack on the revolvers, dropping them to return her embrace.
Moments later his back was soaked with his own warm blood and he knew it was time to go. With growled curses he hoped the child couldn't understand, Castellanos struggled to his feet and staggered awkwardly back towards the wagon, the girls hand gasped his tightly all the way. He didn't even remember his pistols abandoned in the dirt until they were well on their way from the carnage. It didn't matter, pistols could be replaced. And for all he knew he wouldn't need them anymore. The girl clutched at his knee and sniffled up at her protector as he gripped the reins like a leaf clinging to a dying tree. He began to feel dizzy. With a curse he forced himself into focus. Finish the mission like a good soldier! Not much further.
Castellanos released the reins only after bringing the wagon to a halt outside the convent. He clambered painfully down and grasped the girl's hand as he stumbled toward the door. His vision blurred as he pounded the thick wooden door. He could barely understand his own shouts. Soon a brown face wrapped in a dark cloak emerged from the door. He stumbled back and nearly lost balance. The Sister's eyes widened at the sickly soldier.
Grasping the adobe wall for balance, Castellanos explained what had happened in barely coherent gasps. He felt himself fainting when the Sister swooped under his shoulder to support his weight.
"Come in, quickly, senior!" the Sister gasped. "Mother Superior is a doctor, she will help!" Castellano allowed himself to be led inside the convent and to a bed where he collapsed on his belly. Even as metal instruments painfully dug the bullet from his back, he still felt the girl's hand holding his tight.
Several hours in and out of consciousness and the delicious smell of roasting turkey entered his nostrils. Still the little hand grasped his. Castellanos couldn't help but smile, felt his strength beginning to return. All things considered, far from his worst Christmas.