When men's hate reigns, and beckons you
to weep upon a trampled ground,
seek out a star that's pointing to
a wayward place where hope is found.
It's there the truth and dead have gone
to light the sky, to break the dawn.
The body of the young man lay beneath a thorned ocotillo, red tipped; his arms and legs spreadeagled, staked out in the sun. A lone wolf crouched on haunches nearby, a gray salt and pepper, eyeing dinner. Ely reined up and pulled his Henry from the scabbard and raised the gunsight to cover the distance. He then sighted down on the animal and took a bead forward of the shoulder. The gun cracked in the wind and the earth kicked up dust in front of the wolf, who then sprinted off. A hunter, just like us. Doing what's natural is no killing offense.
Alone, Ely had been tracking for seven days on the 1870's Arizona Sonoran Desert. Endless flat grasses, peyote cactus, and a merciless wind under a blistering sun. At the end of the seventh day, with the sun dropping in a dry pink, cloudless sky, he had loped over a low rise and found the young man. And now, with the wolf run off, he took his time studying the land. He scanned the horizon, his eyes touching each late day shadow, prying. He listened to what the terrain told him, the sound of wind through sagebrush. Then he pushed up his brown sweat stained Stetson, exposing a stark white forehead beneath a receding hairline. He leaned and spit and used his faded blue bandana to wipe his mouth, spurred the horse, and in a slow walk closed the distance to where the dead man lay.
After dismounting, he squatted down, and with his hand shaking, he closed the man's eyes. He sat there for a long time. Then, with eyes glistening, he reached into his leather vest pocket and took out two squares of white tobacco paper along with a cloth tobacco pouch. He sprinkled tobacco in one square, rolled it up, and struck a match to it. He exhaled; the smoke ran with the wind. He then pulled out a small knife and cut off a piece of the young man's blond hair. He folded the cut carefully into the other square and tucked it back in his vest.
The rope stretching the arms and legs of the dead man twisted in a Yuma style braid, the weave just right. Those Apache know rope. He checked the tracks. Three riders, one rode sidesaddle, the hoof marks deep on one side. Maybe wounded, he guessed. You winged one of them, didn't you?
"Inconvenient? This is more than inconvenient," he said out loud. "It's a world a trouble, is what it is."
The mare whinnied, then snorted and dragged a hoof into the hard white crust.
"You don't need to press me."
Never one to hurry without good cause, Ely pulled the saddle off his golden mare. Over fifty years, he had known a lot of horseflesh, but Dammit was the best he'd known; not because the horse could go all day at a full trot, not hardly needing water; and not because the horse was steady in a skirmish; and not even because she was more steady in a full-on battle. No. None of those things, although he conceded they were all worthy skills on a long chase like now. It's the advice, he smiled. The damn horse talks back. Not aloud, mind you, but you still hear it. And I hate to admit it, but the advice is good, although mainly a pain in the ass.
He fingered the tin marshal's badge on his chest. So I've got a murder to deal with. He then pulled his hat off and poured a little water into the crown. Dammit stuck her muzzle in and slurped it up. Ely leaned in and gave the horse a kiss on her forehead.
"So whudaya think? We bury him above that dry wash?" Where dirt is concerned, the Sonoran doesn't give an inch, so he dragged the young man over to where there might be a break in the wind and covered him with rocks. After some words, he made camp.
Later, the stars were all out, clear as an honest decision, he remembered, from what his last wife Hope used to say. Maybe she's up there, he thought. He'd had two wives, both gone. Susan from consumption, she was the youngest. Only lived three years after they were married. But it's Hope I miss. Bad miss. She and her eastern education. A man shouldn't live beyond his own family's horizon, and I feel you looking down. Mostly giving me grief about not re-marrying. But the badge is a marriage of sorts, isn't it, Hope?
With no more sound than wind in the sage, and with the stars blazing, he had a dream. He had little recollection later, but Hope had grown more beautiful. The worry lines were gone, her face aglow, sparks from a crackling grand fire rising into the night. Standing next to her, he could just make out a face. An Apache.
Ely woke before light and he and Dammit lit out at a fast trot. The sun rose quick. It was going to be another scorcher.
* * *
The Agujero was bone dry, and this was a surprise for the three riders. The Apache Jararaca dug with his hands into the streambed, but he knew it was useless. Rodriquez, a Mexican bandolero, bleeding from his stomach, fell off his horse and lay moaning on the rocky bank. The third rider was a boy, no older than twelve. He was a young Apache brave, and the Apache Jararaca was his father. He loved him, but his father had within him a hate that drove into the boy a great fear.
Jararaca hated everything. He hated the smallpox that had taken his family; his wife White Feather and son, Little Sparrow, dying in his arms, sweating, covered with pustules, their faces deformed. He hated San Carlos where his way of life was gone; no more hunting the buffalo, much less game; no more food other than bare survival, maggot rotten meat on the rez. And he hated losing what he missed most, what he grew up with as a boy, what he loved more than life. He could no longer ride free, his arms spread in the wind, the spirits of ancestors in his chest. But mostly, he had one big hate. He hated the white man, and this hate burned deep.
And now we're in trouble about the water, he thought. Though he and the boy had more for themselves now that Rodriquez had got himself shot by the young white man, the one who wouldn't beg. The bandolero was stupid, trying to steal the courage from the white man. But Rodriquez's dying would give him and the boy more water. And Rodriquez, thank you. I've been eyeing your Winchester .45 cal.
Rodriquez lay on the ground. "Agua. Agua! Por favor!"
The Apache Jararaca strolled over and prodded Rodriquez with the toe of his laced moccasin. He then slammed the butt of his rifle into the stomach wound. Rodriquez screamed in agony. Blood spurted out of the bullet hole, spilling onto the white sunbaked dirt, soaking the ground with a slow scarlet spread. Jararaca laughed. His once proud face, forty years old, looking like sixty, showed his white teeth. His high cheekbones were still handsome. But it was too late. His lips had a permanent sneer. "Too bad you couldn't steal the courage from the one who wouldn't beg," he told his compadre. "You want agua. I give you some", and then he relieved himself in the bandolero's open wound. There will be no wasting of water. "Estaras muerto antes de la manana." Maybe now you'll understand.
By morning, the Apache Jararaca and the boy had ridden on.
* * *
Ely had to see past the blinding sun, but up ahead of him on the trail an Apache boy appeared on a cream brown pony next to a dead mesquite tree. The boy sat with the late afternoon sun behind him, and he crossed his hands in front of him, just waiting. He had long black hair tied with a red cloth headband, a beige breech coat, loose, and leggings half up to his knees. What caught Ely's attention more than anything was the boy's face; it was the one with Hope in the dream.
But off to the left a hundred yards, a flicker of light. I must be dumb as dirt, deserve to die, coming up this grade. Sure enough, a flash from a muzzle, and then lead whistled by less than two feet above his head. He drew his Colt and snapped off three shots. "I know he's too far, Dammit," he said, and holstered the weapon. As he reached for his Henry, a slug slapped into Dammit just above the noseband and near her eye. The horse reared up, an awful wail, flailing her front hooves into the air, then went down and rolled on Ely, trapping his right leg under the animal. This is not a splendid position, he thought to himself. Worse, you're slippin' with some age on you. He'd dropped the pistol and couldn't reach it, or the Henry. For a while, he struggled with the saddle. You'd appreciate the pistol, keep one bullet and put it in your dumb-ass brain.
The ground tore up around him as the bullets played with him. Three shots punched into Dammit. Things got quiet, and Ely stroked her neck as her breathing rasped. She choked on some pink froth, stirred, and tried to rise. She then laid back still. You're out of your misery now, girl.
It wasn't long.
"No lo intentes, hombre blanco," from close behind him.
And so it starts.
"Now we see what's inside you."
In no time, the Apache and the boy staked him out in the burning sun, naked above the waist. His legs and arms spread tight, just like what they did to the young man. The boy cut twigs and dead branches from the mesquites. He then crouched down on his heels, Apache style, and fed a small fire. Black buzzards fluttered around the branches of the dead mesquite trees, and Ely thought to himself a little joke and smiled. Instead of me shooting the buzzards, I'm the carrion, and it's me they'll be eating.
The Apache chugged from the canteen he'd stripped off Dammit and then pulled a whiskey bottle out of his saddlebag. He said something rough and threw the boy the water. The boy took some swigs, then began placing small rocks in the fire. Soon the flame sprouted up, and Ely could feel the heat searing on his naked skin.
For a while, the liquor kept the Apache busy. He'd take his time looking Ely over with his bloodshot eyes. He thrust out his hand, offering the boy the bottle, but the boy shook his head and swiped his hand away. The rocks had flames wrapped around them and the Apache placed a few sticks he'd whittled down with his knife to the edge of the fire. The ends of the sticks embered up red. I got an idea what the rocks and sticks are for. You better be more worried about the knife.
"You think about it, compadre," the Apache said, then moved off, choking and coughing up some kind of bile mixed with whiskey in a ditch. He passed out in the sunbaked dirt. Later, he rolled over and started snoring. The boy did not move, just fed the fire as night closed in.
The stars came out and Eli lay stretched out staring into the endless black. It won't be long now and I'm ready, he thought. I'm sorry, Hope, for all those years of you staring into the prairie, worried to death, not knowing where I was, or if I was coming back. If you don't want me, I'll understand. But if you'll have me, I'll be holding you soon, so there's that, ain't there? Some of this is good.
The boy came at him in the dark with the knife he'd been using to sharpen the sticks. But then the boy was pulling the rope on one arm and Ely pulled a hand free. Soon the knife cut his other arm loose, and then his legs were free. The boy handed him his holstered Colt and sat back in his crouch.
Ely strapped on the pistol. Shirtless, he made a sprint for the pony. He spoke soft to the horse. "Hey boy, just me now," and then slung his body over bareback.
I know guns, he thought. And that's the sound of a lever action '73 Winchester lever action behind me slip-clicking a round into a chamber. Ely flicked the rein on the pony, facing dead-on into the barrel of that Winchester. The Apache held the rifle hip high, so close if he spit hard he could hit him. Maybe hate delayed him, wanting to relish the fear that was tearing through this white man, but then Ely saw the hate spark. He pulled the trigger. Ely kicked hard off the horse, and as he did a sharp pain grazed his temple. As he fell through the air, he pulled his Colt and fired three shots before hitting the ground. The sound of the gunshot blast broke the sky, a roar, no pause between each crack of the shot, flames firing out of the barrel. It was dead quiet after, like every living thing on earth took notice. The Apache Jararaca lay dead not ten feet away, his head near clean shot off.
* * *
At first sunlight, and for only one reason Ely could figure, the boy collected more dry wood. Then the boy dragged the dead Apache over the fire and built it up to a roaring blaze. The two of them stepped back a way, the flames blue hot, cremating the dead Apache. The boy went into his crouch and began a death song. The mournful sound was steady and low, rhythmic, then pitched high in agony from a loss Ely couldn't imagine. After a long time, the boy then pulled a small box from a satchel he carried. It looked like carved bone, white. As Ely looked on, the boy put personal items he'd collected from the Apache Jararaca into the box; beads, a feather, and Ely thought a small seashell. The boy hadn't spoken a word, and Ely didn't know if he knew English. He must have known some, living on the rez, but knowing English or not, he heard the boy in his head when he asked him what he was doing. He might have been talking, or maybe it was just his imagination.
"My father was full of hate," he said. "My grandmother taught me; what I do now is the cleansing, so the hate won't live in the world." The boy then placed the box in the pyre and jumped back from the heat. The flames soon engulfed the box.
"How long does it take?"
"Hate takes a long time to burn out. My grandmother said 200 white-person years, or more."
Ely kept his eyes on the flames. His breath caught in his throat. He whispered. "Does it work with grief, loneliness?"
"That's a double," the boy said. "You need powerful items."
Ely took out the white tobacco paper he kept with a cut of the young man's hair. "This was my son's hair. My wife Hope and I only had the one."
"Sure. It will work, I think. Why not?"
Ely dared not look at the boy. He placed the folded-up paper in the fire. As the flames took it, there was a flare, large enough to cause the two of them to step back. They stood together as the fire died down.
Before the fire burned out, the boy mounted up on the Apache Jararaca's horse. From the top of the horse, the boy dropped a canteen on the dirt in front of Ely, half the water. He left the pony. He was soon gone in the heat shimmering up in the morning sun.