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Excerpt for Warpath into Sonora by , available in its entirety at Smashwords













Warpath into Sonora:

An Apache Adventure

By Sean McLachlan



Copyright 2016 Sean McLachlan, all rights reserved

Cover design courtesy of Andrés Alonso-Herrero

Public domain cover photo courtesy Library of Congress





















For Almudena, my wife

And Julián, my son







CHAPTER ONE



The hacienda stood silent in the night, its windows shuttered, no sound of movement from within. Moonlight shone pale and soft on the whitewashed walls. Nantan caught the faint smell of a cooking fire that had long since been allowed to die down. He suspected not even the faintest wisp of smoke rose from the chimney. Everyone inside would be asleep by now.

It was a large building, and well placed for defense. The Mexicans had built it on a low ridge cleared of all undergrowth, looking out over a stretch of the Sonora Desert that was well watered by a stream that gurgled in the distance, meandering through the lowlands to give the land creosote and juniper instead of the usual dry rock and cacti. By day Nantan and his friends had spied on the hacienda and its surroundings from a nearby hill, lying stone still behind rock outcroppings with grass tucked in their headbands, and they had admired the grazing land of this broad, undulating valley. The horses these Mexicans had would be fat and healthy.

Nantan gripped his spear and crawled forward. To his left, the hulking shape of Kuruk blotted out a chunk of the moonlit desert. To Nantan’s right, and at some distance, crept Nitis and Biminak. He could barely see them. Good.

The mournful howl of a coyote warbled through the desert air, answered a moment later by its kinsman in the far distance. Nantan and Kuruk paused, listening for the bark of a dog from the hacienda. The Mexicans’ dogs usually barked at coyote. After a moment of silence, the two friends started moving again.

As they crawled forward, cautious as deer approaching a watering hole, Nantan studied the hacienda. It had a covered veranda that swathed its front in shadow. He could barely make out the door and a couple of windows as darker blots in the gloom. Corrals lay to both sides of the house, each hiding their occupants behind thick spiky fences of untrimmed ocotillo wood. Too many times Nantan’s people had leapt over lower fences made of cut mesquite logs in order to butcher a cow and run away with the meat, or to grab a sheep and lift it over the fence. Now the Mexicans built fences no man could climb.

Nantan grinned. It did not matter. They could go through the gate easily enough, but they would have to be quiet.

Nantan and his companions ignored the left-hand corral. They had seen from the hill that it was for cattle. Their stomachs had grumbled at the thought of fresh beef as they kept their long vigil nourished only by a lean meal of parched corn and pemmican. They felt a sore temptation to grab a cow or two, but cattle would be too slow to drive away if the Mexicans pursued them, and it would be tricky to butcher one in silence. The hacienda stood too close and the occupants might hear. Nantan had seen at least two men with guns that day, and he did not want to face guns.

No, they would make for the corral that lay to the right. All day Biminak had labored to weave bridles out of yucca fibers. Each of the four young warriors now carried one, and Biminak himself had a long rope of hemp he had taken from a vaquero they had ambushed last autumn. Biminak was a master with horses. While Nantan and Kuruk kept an eye on the hacienda, Biminak and Nitis would ease open the gate, rope a horse for each of them, and together they would put bridles on them and ride away.

Nantan smiled in anticipation. When Liluye saw him ride into camp on the back of a fine Mexican steed, she would blush and avert her eyes. He would keep her waiting a day or two while the tribe danced a victory dance and feasted, and each day he would ride that fine horse out to hunt, bringing back meat so everyone could feast again. Then he would leave the horse outside her family’s wickiup. Liluye’s father Tarak would tell her to accept it, and Liluye would be his bride. There would be more dances and more feasting. He had only lived nineteen summers, and only the great Ussen knew how many more he would have, but he knew this would be the best summer of his life.

The vision of Liluye’s smooth face and broad, strong hips clouded his awareness for a moment, and he didn’t see the scorpion until his hand was almost upon it.

Nantan froze. The scorpion, which had been scuttling across his path, froze too. It raised its stinger, confused that it no longer saw movement.

Nantan jerked as an object blurred across his vision and landed with a thump in front of him. Blinking, he saw the scorpion had disappeared under a flat stone. He glanced at Kuruk, whose grin shone like a crescent moon in the starlight. A moment later that grin faltered as Kuruk realized how much noise he had just made.

They both lay still, waiting. Nantan hoped the others lay still too. He didn’t check, because he had eyes only for the door and windows not twenty paces in front of him. At any moment they could burst open and those guns could roar death.

Inside the corral, a horse nickered and stomped its hoof.

No sound came from within the hacienda.

After a long moment they began to creep forward once more. Kuruk was a good friend, strong and loyal, but not wise. He could never lead a raid like Nantan.

This was the third raid Nantan had led since he had come of age four seasons ago. The previous two had both been successful, bringing back meat and blankets and all sorts of good things to his people in the mountains. More importantly, no one had been hurt, although that vaquero had taken a shot at them. Tarak, the war chief, had begun to look at him with approval in his eyes, while Tarak’s daughter Liluye looked at him with something very different in hers.

Don’t get distracted! Nantan upbraided himself.

They were almost to the building now. He could clearly see all the windows were shut. How could the Mexicans breathe in there? He kept his ears perked for any sound of a dog.

Dogs were the worst, always signaling to their masters when you drew close. Nantan and his friends felt fairly certain, however, that no dog dwelled inside. The hacienda had a dog, but it had trotted along beside a vaquero when he had ridden off towards the setting sun that afternoon. All day they had been spying on the hacienda, and they had seen no other dog but that one. There would be no barking tonight.

Nantan hoped. A dog wouldn’t stay inside all day, would it?

He and Kuruk stood. They laid down their spears and took their bows off their backs. Quietly they each drew an arrow from their deerskin quiver and nocked it. If anyone came out of the door they would shoot.

Squinting at the shutters, Nantan noticed something that gave him pause. Each shutter had a strange little round pattern in its center. It took him some time to realize what they were—a shutter within a shutter. He had heard of such a thing from some of the elders. These could be opened without opening the whole window and allowed the Mexicans to fire their guns without exposing themselves.

Nantan licked his lips. He was not sure he could shoot through one of those little holes, especially when it hid all but invisible in the shadows. He would bet his moccasins that Kuruk wouldn’t be able to either. Kuruk was a man for hand to hand fighting.

Nantan shook off his doubts and stood with new confidence. His arrow would fly right through that little hole if a Mexican dared to open it. He could outshoot any of the other young men in his tribe, and most of the elders too. He wasn’t as strong as Kuruk, or as funny or as quick or as good with the girls as Nitis, and he stood in awe of Biminak’s mastery of horses, but he was the smartest of them all and the best archer, and those qualities made him the leader. Hopefully those qualities would make Tarak consent to his request to marry Liluye.

The coyote howled again, and again it got a response from its kinsman. The more distant one sounded like it had drawn closer.

Nantan glanced towards the corral. Biminak and Nitis stood at the gate, two dark forms against the jagged fence of ocotillo. Why weren’t they inside yet? Surely by now they could have cut the rope that secured the gate. They seemed to be fumbling with something.

He waited, the moment stretching out as his muscles grew as taut as his bowstring. His two friends still stood in front of the gate. He heard a soft clattering sound. A horse nickered. Nantan glanced at Kuruk, who shrugged his broad shoulders.

Waving to his friend to stay put, Nantan moved over to the gate.

The moonlight revealed to him what was the matter. The latch for the gate was not only tied with thick rope, but from the rope dangled dried rattlesnake tails and little baked clay balls that probably had seeds in them. If they cut the rope, it would make a terrible noise. Biminak gestured impatiently at the trick and raised his hands in frustration. Nitis covered his mouth to suppress a chuckle. Nitis laughed at everything. He had even laughed when the vaquero shot at them last autumn.

Placing his bow on the ground, Nantan extended his arm below the string of noisemakers and slowly raised it until the clay rattles and snakes’ tails all rested on his arm. He moved so slowly they barely made a sound. Then he took his other arm and brought it gently down on the top of the noisemakers, pressing them between his arms so they would not move.

Nitis grinned and nodded his head in approval. The smaller man was quick with a joke, but when faced with a problem, it was usually Nantan who thought of a solution first. Nitis gently sawed away at the end of the rope with his knife. Once he severed the cord, he shifted to Nantan’s other side and cut that end too.

Slowly Nantan turned around, the noisemakers still stuck between his extended arms. He took a few careful steps away from the gate, bent his legs until he was in a squat, and gently placed the noisemakers on the ground with barely a sound.

When he turned he saw Nitis waddling along behind him, his arms ridiculously outstretched and a comical look of worry on his face. Biminak and Nantan clenched their mouths, trying not to let the laughter escape them. Nantan punched the air in front of his friend’s face, and that made the three of them almost burst with giggles.

Once they recovered, Nantan gave his friend a quiet cuff on the side of the head and pointed to the gate.

Biminak was already easing it open, calling to the horses that stood beyond, using that soft, soothing tone he had that could calm even the fiercest unbroken stallion.

Nantan crept to the entrance of the corral but did not enter. It was best to leave Biminak alone to do what he did best. Nantan watched in amazement as his friend walked through the moonlit herd and picked out the best horses, all the while singing that strange song of nonsense words that had such a soothing effect on horses. It was his power. If any other stranger had come into the corral with his unfamiliar scent in the middle of the night, the horses would stomp and whinny. Not so with Biminak.

The moonlight flashed dully on the lasso of hemp rope as it spun at the end of Biminak’s line. Then it whipped forward, landing on a horse’s neck like a garland. Still Biminak kept up his little song, and the horse did not make sound as he brought it to the gate. It was a small horse, but even in the half-light Nantan could tell it was healthy and fleet of foot. Biminak pointed to Nitis and with a delighted hop, the little man went over and carefully put his bridle over the horse’s head.

Biminak retrieved his lasso and returned to the corral. When he came back, it was with a large, broad-bellied animal obviously intended for Kuruk. The big man ran silently over on his moccasined feet and bridled his prize.

Next came Nantan’s turn. He stepped from one foot to the other, impatient as a child waiting for his mother to come back from a beehive with a honeycomb.

Nantan’s breath caught. Biminak came out with a beauty! Lean muscles, a fine form, and perfect flesh. The horse looked strong and fast and Nantan could tell as he ran his hand along its flank that it had great endurance. Nantan bridled it, overcome with joy. Wait until Tarak and Liluye see this!

A short time later, Biminak returned with another fine horse that he kept for himself.

Once Nantan finished bridling his steed, he leapt onto its back. It snuffled a bit, stamping its hoof at the unfamiliar feel of a rider not using one of those leather seats the Mexicans always put between their backsides and the horse. Nantan had never understood why they did that. How could they feel the horse’s movements and direct it where to go?

The others mounted up, trying to make as little noise as they could, but it was impossible to stay truly silent while mounting an unfamiliar horse in the darkness.

As the last of them got ready, Nantan waved his arm over his head, signaling that they should move out. They would move slowly and quietly, picking their way through the rocks and brush until they reached the more open pasture a short ride away, where they could trot safely by the light of the moon and stars.

The clatter of wood hitting wood made them all snap their gaze towards the hacienda. There was a roar and a flare of light from one of the windows, followed an instant later by a hum like that of an angry bee.

In front of him, Nantan saw Nitis’ horse buck, whinnying and rearing. Nitis clung on tight to its mane, trying to calm the steed.

Another gunshot rang out from the other window.

“Let’s go before they reload!” Nantan said.

“My horse has been hit, I can’t control him!” Nitis cried.

Biminak trotted over and whispered something to Nitis’ horse as it bucked and sidestepped, its hooves sending up sparks as it hit the stones.

While Nitis tried to force the animal to stop moving by hauling on its mane, Biminak kept up that low whispering tongue he knew, reaching out to touch the side of the horses’ head. Moonlight glistened off the animals’ wide, rolling eyes. After a moment, it stopped bucking. Still Biminak whispered to the animal, soothing it.

Nantan drew an arrow from his quiver, nocked it and aimed for the first window.

They had put some distance between themselves and the hacienda before the shots had come, and now he could barely see the windows sheltered in the deep shadow of the veranda. Dimly he spied movement there. The muzzle of a gun poking out for another shot?

Nantan let fly. There was a bright spark as the flint arrowhead struck the metal barrel of the gun, and a cry of surprise. The gun was swiftly withdrawn.

As fast as he could, Nantan whipped another arrow out of his quiver, aimed for a moment, then fired. An anguished cry came from within the hacienda.

Nantan let out a whoop, picked up by Kuruk, who had witnessed the shot.

Biminak cut them off. “Quiet! You’ll spook the horse again.”

Kuruk and Nantan fell silent, grinning at each other. Suddenly Nantan remembered the other window and as swift as thought drew another arrow and fired. He was disappointed when it thunked into the wood of the shutter, but was rewarded by hearing the clatter of the hole being covered. He sneered. The Mexicans were a cowardly tribe.

“He’s ready,” Biminak said, “let’s go.”

They urged their horses through the brush as fast as they dared.

“Is he badly hurt?” Nantan asked.

“Not so badly,” Nitis said. “Just a graze. It got startled, though.”

“Mine bucked a little at the sound too,” Kuruk said.

Nantan looked at his own horse with new appreciation. The animal hadn’t even twitched at the sound of the shot. He patted the horse’s neck.

“I shall call you Illanipi, ‘amazing’, because that is what you are. We will go on many raids together.”

A shout came from the now-distant hacienda, an angry stream of curse words in Spanish, ending with, “I’ll kill you all, you filthy Apache!”

Nantan’s laughter rang through the nighted desert. “Apache”, that’s what those Mexicans had called them. It was a Zuni word, another tribe’s word. It meant “feared enemy”. The real name of his people was N’de, which simply meant “the People” since they were the only true ones. “Apache” was what everyone else called them. What a childish term, like a baby crying because her doll has been taken away. The Mexicans and other tribes wouldn’t have to fear the People if they could fight better!







CHAPTER TWO



The four friends laughed and joked all through the three-day ride back to their tribe’s camp in the mountains. Nantan couldn’t stop thanking Biminak for the fine horse he’d stolen for him. All the horses were good—Biminak could sniff out good horseflesh in the pitch dark—but Nantan’s was the best by far.

“Enjoy it while you have it,” Biminak said after one of his many thanks.

Kuruk and Nitis belted out a laugh. They all knew of Nantan’s feelings for Liluye.

Nantan grinned. Let them laugh. He would gladly give up the finest horse in the tribe for the finest woman. And when he led his next raid as a married man, Biminak could always steal him another one.

The wounded horse didn’t slow them down. The bullet had only grazed it, and Biminak gathered some herbs that he mixed with water and ground into a paste that he applied to the wound.

“Within seven days he will barely have a scar,” Biminak told them.

The flat desert broke into jagged hills leading up to rough-sided mountains gleaming in the harsh desert sun. At times the slope grew so steep they had to lead their horses. Spires of rock towered over them, with saguaro cacti clinging to narrow ledges like sentinels as buzzards wheeled above, soaring on the updrafts. As the warriors continued to climb, cacti and mesquite gave way to bushes and eventually trees. Rock gave way to thin soil covered in pine needles. The dry air of the desert was replaced with the moisture of the mountains with its rich scents of green grass and pine. The air grew keen at night and they wrapped blankets around themselves to keep warm.

At last they approached camp, and heard the long, high call of one of the lookout boys announcing their arrival.

The raiding party passed between two rough peaks. From atop each, slim youthful figures waved down at them. Riding over a low ridge, the four friends spied a protected little valley dotted with the low brush mounds of wikiups, the snug little homes of the two dozen large families that made up Nantan’s tribe. Nantan’s chest swelled as he spotted his own home, and the squat figure of his mother waiting outside it. He felt a twinge of sadness that his father wasn’t here to greet him, and the old shame that he had been killed by the filthy Papago, the weakest and most cowardly of all the tribes.

Nantan realized his shoulders had slumped. He forced his spine to stand as erect as a sotol. He would be a great warrior. No one would ever say a bad word about his family.

Nantan stopped a little way from the wikiup. Even though this was his own home, propriety dictated that did not simply rush up to it. One of his mother’s female friends might be inside. His mother sang a blessing song and fetched some water, signaling that he could come closer. His friends had already gone off to their own wikiups, each trailing a curious crowd alongside that pestered them with questions. No one had followed Nantan. As the raid leader, all knew that he would tell the full tale tonight as the tribe gathered.

“That’s the finest horse I’ve seen in a long time,” his mother said as he rode up.

“Biminak picked him out for me in the dark.”

Mother laughed. “That young man doesn’t need to see to spot good horseflesh. Come, drink. The day is hot.”

Nantan dismounted and drank from the olla, the wicker jar covered in pitch that his mother handed him. He looked around the camp.

“Where is Tarak?” Nantan asked.

His mother smiled, knowing why he asked.

“He is visiting his brother and cousins, who are camped by the stream under Broken Peak.”

“When will he return?”

His mother shrugged. “He will return when he returns. Perhaps he will be back tomorrow. Perhaps he will decide to stay through the summer. He enjoys his time with his brother, and the hunting is good around Broken Peak. Yes, definitely I think he will not be back until the leaves fall.”

Nantan stared at her, crushed. His mother broke out in peals of laughter. She put a hand on his blushing cheek.

“Don’t worry, son. He said he would be back before the new moon, and that’s only a couple of days away. You have something you wish to discuss with him, yes?”

“Perhaps,” Nantan said, still blushing as he turned away.

His mother chuckled.

The day was only half gone, so after greeting everyone the four friends gathered together and went off hunting. Some of the children had told them that a deer herd had been grazing that morning in the north meadow, so that is where they headed. It just so happened that Liluye’s wikiup was situated on the northern side of the village, and Nantan made sure to lead them right past it. Nantan’s heart did a flip-flop as they approached, for Liluye and her aunt were skinning rabbits outside the entrance.

Nantan had always liked Liluye’s aunt, and she had always liked him. She proved this now by pretending to drop her knife. She bent over to retrieve it, giving Nantan a crucial few moments.

Nantan smiled, and let Illanipi’s reins drop from his grasp on the side of the horse’s neck facing Liluye.

Still facing forward, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and saw her face light up. Then she saw him looking, blushed deeply, and bent back over her work.

Just then her aunt stood up, and Nantan grabbed the reins. The warriors trotted by as if nothing had happened. No one said a word.

As soon as they got out of range, Nitis and Biminak burst into laughter.

“What?” Kuruk asked.

“Oh, you didn’t see?” Biminak said, barely able to get the words out. “Nantan as good as left a horse in front of Liluye’s wikiup!”

Nitis punched Nantan in the shoulder. “I should have grabbed the reins and said, ‘Why Nantan, I’m honored. I’d be happy for you to marry my sister. You’ll have to wait some time, though.’”

Everyone laughed. Nitis’ sister was still a toddler.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t joke around,” Nantan said.

“Oh, if I’m to die in battle, it’s not going to be at the hands of one of the People!” Nitis said.

The four friends rode off in the direction of the north meadow, laughing and joking until they got close. Then they fell silent, tethered the horses to some bushes, and crept to where the deer had been spotted. Luck was with them and the herd was still there grazing. A few were heavily pregnant and these they avoided. Nantan managed to shoot a beautiful ten-pointed buck and Kuruk shot an eight-pointed one. As the sun painted the western sky red, they returned with two fat deer, enough to feed everyone.

That night the tribe ate well, and listened with rapt attention as Nantan related the tales of their adventures. No one listened more attentively than Liluye, who shyly sat with her aunt at the opposite side of the fire from the young warriors.

Nantan made sure to address that side of the circle as much as he could. He wasn’t rude, he didn’t look at Liluye directly, but he did manage to make it seem like he was speaking for her benefit.

Nitis then entertained everyone by imitating how Nantan had walked with the rattles in his hands trying not to wake the Mexicans, and then made fun of himself by leaping around and whinnying in an exaggerated account of how his horse was shot. The younger boys, not yet men, clustered around the four warriors and pestered them all night to be allowed on the next raid.

At last the food was all eaten and the People started to return to their wikiups. Liluye stayed longer than most, but at last her aunt led her away. Nantan sat with his mother, who was nodding off to sleep.

“It was a good day,” she said, putting a hand on his. “They will be talking about it for a long time to come.”

“I wish Tarak could have been here to hear about our raid on the ranch,” Nantan replied softly.

“I’m sure he’ll hear all about it.”

“I wonder when he’ll come back?” he said for the tenth time that day.

His mother chuckled and patted his hand.

“Don’t worry. I believe he will return tomorrow.”

Tarak did return the next day, and at the sight of him all thought of leaving the horse in front of his wikiup fled from Nantan’s mind.







CHAPTER THREE



The proud war chief staggered into camp late in the day, exhausted and panting. He bore a horrible slash across his face and one eye had been patched with a strip of Mexican cloth. Several smaller cuts crisscrossed his skin. One of his moccasins was missing, as was the bag in which he carried food. He still gripped his bow but his quiver was empty of arrows. Through parched lips he begged for water. One of the women hurriedly brought over an olla, and as he gratefully gulped from the jug, a young girl ran to get Nakaidoklini, an elder who was experienced in healing. Everyone gathered around.

“Who attacked you? What happened?” Kuruk asked.

Tarak was still panting like he had run all day. With his single eye he glowered at the tribe with a feverish gaze and shouted.

“It was the White Mexican!”

Everyone drew in their breath. Nantan felt a strange prickling go up his spine, like when he had been a youth and had gone on his first raid under the tutelage of the elders.

The White Mexican struck fear in the heart of every one of the People, although none would ever show such an emotion. No one knew his name, but he was the worst of the scalp hunters. The Mexican chiefs had put out an award for the People’s scalps, offering the gold and silver the Mexicans craved in exchange for each one they took. Bands of Mexicans, sometimes with Comanche or Papago scouts, roved all across the land on their horses, attacking the People’s camps and killing everyone. Entire families, entire bands, had been wiped out.

The White Mexican was the worst of them all. Just last autumn, he and his followers attacked a camp in these same mountains, killing fifteen people. None had been relatives of Nantan’s, but he had known some of them. One of them had been a good singer and Nantan had danced to his songs all night at a wedding the year before. There had been a couple of pretty girls in that camp too. The scalp hunters had dishonored them before tearing off their hair.

The White Mexican had killed more of the People than all other scalp hunters combined. Survivors said he rode a great white horse with silver flashing on the bridle and saddle. He carried a long rifle and four pistols, and could shoot a flitting sparrow out of the sky. They said he spoke Spanish and wore the clothes of a Mexican, but had skin as pale as the White Eyes from Texas. Perhaps he had been born there. Nobody knew.

For a moment no one said a word. The only sound was Tarak’s panting. He looked around the group again with that terrible, lone eye and began to speak.

“I went to visit my brother and cousins. While I departed a few days ago and could have gotten there in three long days of walking, I was distracted when I came across a fine deer. I wanted to shoot this deer and present it to my kinsmen as a gift. A witch must have sent that deer! My arrows could not hit it, and you all know that when I shoot, I hit.”

Everyone nodded. That was no boast. Nantan had seen the truth of it many times.

“Frustrated, I followed the deer, and it led me on a chase for an entire day. At last it ran across a rocky area and I lost its trail. That, too, reeked of bad medicine.”

Nantan nodded again. No one could track an animal like Tarak could.

“I gave up and resumed my journey, which because of that accursed deer took four days instead of three. Would that I had never seen it! For as approached my brother’s camp, none of the youths who keep watch on the rocks overlooking the trail called to me, and there were no women at the stream. Then the wind shifted and I caught the stench of death.”

Nakaidoklini arrived with his satchel of herbs, but Tarak waved him away and continued.

“I approached the camp with care, keeping low and out of sight like I was stalking an enemy. Even before I could see the camp I could hear the buzz of flies.”

Tarak bowed his head, his face overcome with grief.

“They had killed everyone. Everyone. Even my cousin’s newborn son, who had only seen three full moons. They had scalped everyone. My brother. My cousins. Every man, every woman, every child. Only my cousin’s newborn they spared, because he had not yet grown hair. In their rage at being denied a scalp, they smashed his head in against a stone, crushed it like some overripe fruit.”

Several people gasped. Some of the women sobbed. Tarak wasn’t the only one to have friends and family in that band. Nantan tensed. What if the scalp hunters came here? Or to the camp where his two sisters lived with their husbands? Tarak went on.

“I followed the scalp hunters. Their tracks were fresh. Because they were mounted, they had to ride a long way around Boulder Ridge, while I could cross straight over. That is how I caught them even though I was on foot. I found the camp of the White Mexican and his followers, at least thirty in number. They were all armed with guns and had fine horses. The White Mexican has a white stallion at least sixteen hands high. Never have I seen such a horse. Surely it must be possessed by a bad spirit just like its rider.

“Despite the odds, I decided to attack. I was too blind with rage to think clearly. I stayed close to their camp and awaited my chance. Once nightfall came, I heard the scalp hunters laughing loudly and singing bawdy songs, and knew they had brought along jugs of mescal to pass the time. Half the night I waited, until the men fell asleep and the fire died down so that it gave little light.

“Then I struck. The White Mexican is a wily one, and not all his men were allowed to drink mescal. At four different points around the camp stood guards, each with a gun at the ready. But these were Mexicans, afraid of the night and with ears that cannot hear. I crept up to the first one as easily as one would an infant, and slit his throat before he had time to call out.

“To the next I did the same, and then crept towards the third. But the bad medicine that had drawn that accursed deer into my path still worked against me. The guard called out to his fellow, one of the ones I had killed, and when the man did not answer, the guard started approaching the spot where his friend was supposed to be, his gun leveled and ready to fire.

“I leapt upon him from the shadows and plunged my knife into his chest. He had just enough time before he died to turn on me and shoot. The bullet passed by me, but the muzzle was so close it gave me this powder burn on my side.

“The time for stealth was past. I ran into their camp with a war whoop, heading straight for the White Mexican. If I only had a chance to kill one more, he would be the one. A man sprang up in my path and I cut him down. By the time I made it to the White Mexican, he was up and ready for me, holding a shining knife as big as my forearm.

“We fought, and I would have bested him except that within a moment his companions were on their feet and had surrounded me. As you can see they cut me several times, but I gutted one and cut three more before the White Mexican gave me a terrible blow that took my eye.

“I knew I was finished then, and I am not ashamed to say that I fought my way out of the circle and ran. I did not want to have my scalp taken and appear before my ancestors without my hair.”

“You were wise, Tarak,” one of the elders said. The others nodded in agreement. Everyone knew Tarak never ran from a fight. Preserving his body for the Happy Hunting Ground lent him no disgrace. Tarak went on.

“I ran far into the night. The Mexicans, being afraid of the dark, did not pursue. All night I lay on a flat stone looking up at the stars and praying quietly to Ussen and my ancestors. I thought I would meet them before sunrise, but they had other plans for me, for when the sun rose I was still alive, although only just.

“I crept back to the Mexican camp and found they had departed. I recovered my bow from where I had hidden it under a rock and went into their camp. The men I had killed were laid to one side. The Mexicans had not bothered to cover them. Perhaps they feared I would bring back more of the People to renew the attack. I cut off part of one Mexican’s shirt to make this patch, washed my wounds at a nearby stream, and came back here with the last of my strength.”

At last Tarak fell silent.

“I will go kill these scalp hunters. We must protect the People,” Nantan heard himself say. He had not intended on saying anything, but the words came out of him like air from his lungs being exhaled without thought. Perhaps Ussen had willed him to speak.

Tarak glowered at him with his lone eye.

“Are you ready to face death to avenge this crime on the People?”

Nantan puffed out his chest. “I am ready to face death and give it!”

“The White Mexican may go south into Sonora,” Tarak said. “I have heard it said that is where he lives. And he must go there to collect his gold for the scalps.”

“I will go to Mexico City to kill him,” Nantan boasted.

Tarak gave him an approving nod and suddenly Nantan realized something. If he fought well at this great warrior’s side, if he gained Tarak’s admiration, perhaps when he left his horse outside Liluye’s wikiup, Tarak would persuade his daughter to accept it.

“Who else will go?” Tarak asked.

“I had a friend in the band,” Biminak said without naming the man, for it was not proper to name the dead. “I go too!”

Kuruk and Nitis were quick to agree. Some of the other warriors did too, but Tarak turned them down. Some were too old to go on such a long journey; one was slightly lame and would slow them down. Tarak told them they were needed to spread the news that the White Mexican was in the area, and to protect the camp. The young boys he also rejected. It was normal to bring youths on the warpath to do the work and observe how real warriors fought in battle, but there would be too much trouble in this fight and they couldn’t be burdened with anyone who couldn’t do their share of the fighting. Many of the younger hotheads loudly objected to this, but Tarak silenced them with a glare.

The only other man he accepted was Taklishim, called “the grey one” because even though he was only ten years older than Nantan his hair had gone gray like that of an old man. Taklishim was a good hunter and warrior, although not a great one. Nantan sensed that Tarak would rather not bring him along, but his sister had been one of those slain and the war chief could not deny him a chance at revenge. No war chief could claim a such right to himself and deny it to another.

“We leave in three days,” Tarak declared, and finally allowed Nakaidoklini to treat his wounds. Then some of the elders fetched some fresh spring water and washed him and the spot where he sat, because had had been to a dead place.

Everyone started preparing. The women cut thin strips of deer meat and hung them in the sun to dry. They also made dense cakes of maize to go with the meat. They set out extra traps to catch rabbits so that the war party could have as much meat as possible for their journey. Nantan’s mother patched his blanket at checked his moccasins. She prepared some deer sinew into thread and found a strong thorn from a mescal to use as a needle. These Nantan would bring along in case he had to repair any of his clothing.

Kuruk found a good cobblestone in a stream and cut a strip of rawhide to the proper shape. This he soaked in water and wrapped around the stone so that when it dried it would make a snug fit. To this he attached a handle made from cow’s tail hide wrapped around a stick. He left a loose bit of leather connecting the handle and the head so that when he swung it down on an enemy, it would snap forward with extra force.

Biminak cared for the horses, checking on their skin and hooves and taking them every day to the best pastures. Nitis and Nantan went to a place that had good flint and made dozens of arrowheads, while some of the younger boys helped them by going down the mountain to a stream where reeds grew that made good shafts. One lucky boy downed an eagle with his sling, and proudly presented the feathers to Nantan. They already had plenty of turkey feathers for fletching the arrows, but eagle feathers were better. They praised the boy and promised to bring him something special from the Mexicans.

When Nitis came back to camp one afternoon with a deer, Tarak asked for the animal’s spleen and a portion of large intestine. He hung the parts from a dead tree to dry in the sun. Once they had, the war chief used a rock to grind up the spleen into a powder and put it in a little bag he made from the intestine. To the powder he added some ground nettles and Fire Weed, a useless plant that tastes like chili but gives a bad stomach. Tarak then spat in the bag and quickly tied it up before hanging it from the same tree.

This piqued Nantan’s curiosity, but he was too afraid to ask Tarak what he was doing. Tarak had been acting like a man touched by spirits, walking around camp muttering to himself. At times they would see him on the big rock overlooking camp, silhouetted against the harsh blue sky as he glared towards the southern horizon.

While they continued their preparations and the days passed, the little bag of deer intestine swelled up in the sun. Those who walked close complained that it gave off a foul odor, but none dared complain to Tarak.

On the third day after he had hung the sack, Tarak went over and pulled it down. Nantan followed him, keeping a respectful distance.

“Come,” Tarak said, gesturing for Nantan to join him.

After a moment’s hesitation, Nantan did as the elder bade him to do.

Tarak tore open the sack. Nantan expected to be overwhelmed by the stench that everyone had been complaining about, but he only caught a faint whiff of carrion. The contents had dried into a sickly paste.

“It is ready,” Tarak said.

The elder set down the sack on a flat stone and one by one, took the arrows from his quiver and wiped each side of the arrowhead on the paste. He left each arrow out in the sun so the paste would finish drying and then asked for Nantan’s arrows.

“This is poison,” Nantan said, handing him the arrows. “Won’t it ruin the meat?”

“Only the part around the wound,” Tarak said, dipping Nantan’s arrows in the paste. “It wastes some meat, yes, but kills the animal like the bite of a rattlesnake. You should never use rattlesnake poison on hunting arrows because that will ruin all the meat. But your arrows and mine will not be used for hunting, Nantan. The others are good enough hunters to keep us supplied with meat. You and I are the best archers by far, and we will save our arrows for the Mexicans, and most of all for the White Mexican.”

Nantan felt a tremble of fear and tried to crush it. He was one of the People, and such feelings were unworthy of him.

Tarak studied him. “You and your friends make a good raiding party, and although you are young, you have proved yourselves. Some of the more experienced warriors need to stay here to protect the tribe in case the White Mexican gets around us and comes this way. Also, I chose you to come with me because you speak the language of the Mexicans.”

Nantan nodded. His mother had spent her girlhood in one of the haciendas before she was taken captive and became one of the People. Maria Sánchez was her original name, and she had taught him Spanish and named him Sánchez. Everyone in the tribe called him Nantan, “spokesman”, because he spoke with the Mexicans when the tribe traded for aguardiente and gunpowder. Biminak had a mother who was born Mexican too, but the tribe had taken her when she was a very little girl and Biminak hadn’t learned much Spanish.

Tarak put a strong hand on Nantan’s shoulder

“Are you ready for your first warpath? It is different than a raid.”

Nantan stood a little straighter.

“Yes, elder, and I know my friends will say the same thing.”

Tarak nodded in approval. Nantan looked uncertainly at the paste glistening on the line of arrowheads.

“Does this poison kill as fast as a rattlesnake?”

“Faster. It is very bad poison. The whole body swells up and you die before you can run an arrow’s flight. Take care when handling your arrows.”

Tarak then pulled out some bullets from his pouch. A couple were lead like the Mexicans used, while the rest Tarak had carved from stone. He rolled each one in the poison, careful not to touch the wet parts with his hands.

“It works on bullets too?” Nantan asked.

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“When the gun roars, wouldn’t it blow off the poison?”

Tarak shook his head. “You have much to learn.”

Nantan flushed with embarrassment. He had asked a stupid question. He chided himself to be careful. If he said too many foolish things while on the warpath, Tarak might think twice before telling Liluye to accept his horse.









CHAPTER FOUR



The night before the war party set off, the tribe gathered for a war dance. Some of the older men sat in a row with their drums, while facing them several paces away sat the older women, children, and those men of fighting age not going on the warpath. The young maidens stood to one side wearing their best jewelry and clothing, waiting for the time when it would be their turn to join in. Facing them stood Tarak, Nantan, and the rest of the war party.

The old men started their drumming, a low, regular beat that Nantan could feel in his chest. He stood with his feet apart, rocking back and forth slightly in time to the music, his eyes cast down towards the circle of bare earth his tribe had made, letting the music take over his mind. After a time he discovered his feet were stamping in time to the drums without his having to tell them to. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the others in the war party stamping their feet too.

Not another hand or a foot in the tribe moved except for the hands of the drummers as they beat regular time. It was the warriors’ turn to dance.

Nantan stamped his feet, moving in little circles, his companions moving nearby, occasionally circling each other, eyes down, focused.

“Tarak!” a voice called out. It was Dasodaha, Tarak’s father’s brother, too old to go on the warpath but with a past full of victories.

“Tarak!” Dasodaha called again.

Tarak stamped into the circle, keeping in time with the drums. In his hands he carried his great spear, the staff taller than a man and with an old Mexican saber lashed to the end.

This Tarak spun over his head, then brought down in great sweeps that made the blade whoosh through the air and brought sparks bursting up from the fire. Again and again he swept that spear down and across, and once or twice jabbed it forward with all his might, his one eye livid in the firelight. All the rest of the war party stayed on their side of the circle, stamping their feet and watching how he would fight.

At last, with a final vicious cut made with white knuckles and gritted teeth, Tarak swept out of the circle. The drums continued their beat.

“Nantan!” his mother’s voice cried out. Nantan stayed where he danced, waiting.

“Nantan!” his mother’s voice called again.

Nantan danced out into the open area, grasping his bow. He danced in a circle, facing outward as he held the bow aloft for all to see. It was made of the finest mulberry wood from a perfectly formed tree he had found on the northern slopes after five days of searching.

As the drums continued, he crouched low, pulling back the bowstring to his ear even though there was no arrow. His eyes focused on the darkness beyond the tribe, focusing on an enemy only his mind could see, a Mexican vaquero or one of the dirty Papago. He released the string and imagined the enemy falling.

An instant later he turned and drew the string again, firing in his imagination at the form of a Mexican ranchero.

The drums moved his legs, and they stamped on the dirt in time to their beat as he spun again to draw the bowstring to his ear.

He looked into the darkness beyond the drummers, their hands flicking on the deer skin in time with his feet, and beheld his final enemy.

It was the White Mexican, the fearsome spirit that came for scalps, mutilating the souls of the People forever and making them spend eternity in the Happy Hunting Grounds with their skulls showing through the grisly cut around their heads.

Nantan’s eyes widened. He could almost see the White Mexican, the image in his mind so clear that it was as if the fire was reflecting off his tall, lean form as the scalp hunter stood behind the dancers, the firelight glinting red off his dripping knife.

Nantan’s heart filled with fear, and he loosed his bowstring, but in his mind’s eye he did not see the White Mexican fall. Nantan stamped back to the war party, and when he turned to face the circle again the image of the White Mexican had disappeared.

Next one of Kuruk’s kinsmen called him out to the center of the circle.

“Kuruk!” the call came again.

Instead of the hulking Kuruk, little Nitis ran out into the circle wearing a bearskin cloak. Kuruk means “bear”, and so everyone laughed. Nitis grinned and ran around the circle as the drums beat time. He looked this way and that as if frightened, which made everyone smile because despite his small size, Nitis laughed at danger like he laughed at everything else.

From under the cloak, Nitis drew out a cow’s skull and placed it on the ground before scampering back to the war party.

Now Kuruk himself stamped out into the circle, wielding his new war club. With this he cleaved the air, and the onlookers could feel the wind as it passed. He dashed over to the fire and swept the war club through the rising flames, the wind causing a great gout of sparks to fly up into the night sky. Still stamping his feet in time to the drums, he circled the cow’s skull as it seemed to glow in the firelight. After the third time circling the skull, Kuruk leapt up and brought the war club down on the bone. The skull shattered into a hundred pieces, bits of it flying in all directions. One of the onlookers flinched as a shard hit him, and then nodded in approval.

Kuruk danced out of the ring, and now one of Biminak’s kinsmen called for him to dance next.

This he did, with a spear tucked under his elbow. He dashed from one end of the ring to the other, pretending he was mounted on a horse and stabbing at the enemy. On some of the passes he leapt from side to side as if dismounting and remounting his steed at a gallop, something they had all seen Biminak do many times.

Once he finished, Nitis was called out next. He had discarded his bearskin cloak and now wore only a breechclout. He crept around the circle with a knife in his hand, pretending to hide behind rocks and worm his way along gullies, but there was no joking in his pantomime. At times he leapt up and mimicked stabbing someone in the back or grabbing them by the hair and slitting their throat. Nitis did not give the audience one of his smiles as he finished his dance. Out of the corner of his eye Nantan could see Tarak nod in approval. Nitis might have been a clown, but he could be serious when seriousness was needed.

Finally Taklishim was called out. His name meant “the gray one” because of he had hair like an old man. At first people started calling that to tease him, but the elders said it showed he was wise beyond his years and the joke soon became a compliment, and finally his name.

He also had a power. Several years ago he had walked all the way to the Lipan People, near the land of the White Eyes in Texas, in order to meet a famous medicine man who made magical shields. It took him six weeks of walking towards the rising sun, and six weeks walking back, but the trip had been worth it. Taklishim held the shield in front of him now, a wide circle of cow hide two layers thick. On it were painted lines of red and white, and strange symbols Nantan had only seen among the faded pictures the ancestors had carved on rocks long ago.

Taklishim knelt low, with the shield in front of him and angled. This made arrows and bullets slide off it, not even leaving a mark. Taklishim stamped around the circle. Just as he turned to face Nantan, Taklishim blinked out of view and only the shield remained before him, dancing in the firelight. Without losing the beat of the dance, Nantan took a step backwards, and grasped the string of his bow. Then Taklishim turned to face those who danced beside Nantan and the young warrior saw that Taklishim crouched so low that when he faced someone, he was lost from view like a warrior hiding behind a rock waiting to spring an ambush.

Nantan felt disappointed that the shield couldn’t really make Taklishim invisible, and a bit ashamed for being fooled. At least the shield would be proof against the Mexicans’ bullets.

All the warriors of the raiding party had shown the tribe how they would defeat the enemy. Now the warriors broke into a song Tarak had taught them, a song that told the People of all the good things they would bring back from the Mexicans, the blankets and horses, the guns and powder. Many good knives would they bring back to the People, and metal pots that could be broken up to make arrowheads. They would bring back bags of grain and sugar. The tribe would have good things to last several seasons.

Once the song was finished, the women on the other side of the circle slowly danced forward, swaying side to side. Their eyes, which had watched each warrior fight the battles that were to come, now fixed their gaze on a single one as they approached.

Nantan’s heart thrilled, his chest puffing out as he saw Liluye heading straight for him. He waited for her to take a few more steps before dancing forward to meet her. It would be presumptuous to move too soon.

Just then Nitis cut him off. Nantan almost lost the beat. He fumed as his friend moved towards Liluye, far enough ahead of him that Nantan couldn’t keep beat and catch up. Nantan looked helplessly at Liluye and she met his gaze, equally helpless.

Nitis looked over his shoulder, grinned, and veered off to the left towards pretty little Guyan, who laughed as she danced towards him.

Nantan looked back at Liluye, who gave a shy smile in return. They and the other warriors and maidens danced to the drum all through the night as the sparks from the fire drifted up into the starry sky until the eastern horizon paled, the fire died down, and the stars faded one by one.

Sunrise saw the war party on the ridge overlooking the camp, facing east to greet the new day. As bands of blood red cloud decorated the eastern sky, each man sang songs of his exploits, their words ringing out over the mountaintop so that all in the camp below could hear. Tarak’s song lasted the longest as he told tales of battles from the time before Nantan was old enough to walk, tales of killing Papago and Navajo and Mexicans. Most had been told many times before, on the cold winter nights when the mountaintop was white with frost and everyone huddled close to the fire, or on the long marches in search for game. But to hear those tales again before setting off under the leadership of this man made Nantan swell with pride. To be fighting at the side of such a warrior!

After Tarak’s litany, the songs of the others sounded embarrassingly short. Nantan and his friends boasted of stealing horses from right out from under the noses of the rancheros, and of the clever ambush they had laid down for that vaquero last autumn. There was little else to say, however. Taklishim, who had spent most of his years in another camp and thus had not gone on any raids with Nantan and his friends, had other tales to tell, of gutting a Mexican farmer and taking so many bags of grain that when he returned to camp the children screamed, thinking some spirit had taken the form of a pile of sacks with legs. He told of raiding a ranch where he had passed invisibly under the gaze of the Mexicans to steal a fat cow and lead her back to his camp. And he told another tale of fighting some Mexican traveler foolish enough to ride alone through Apacheria, who felt his gun would be enough to save him. Taklishim’s magical shield had deflected the bullet and Taklishim held the man’s musket aloft to prove the truth of his tale.

Nantan was surprised. He did not know that Taklishim had a gun. He advised himself to get to know this half-stranger better and, if he fought well, to invite him on more raids in the future.

When they were done singing, Tarak pointed at the camp below. It was quiet. A few women were grinding corn or stoking fires in preparation for the morning meal, but most of the People were asleep in their wikiups.


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