An Excerpt from Doubtful Cañon
This is the story the albino man told:
You kids ain’t never heard the like, never seen such sights, but I’ll swear on ever’ Bible in Shakespeare that what you’re ’bout to hear is pure gospel. Burned in my memory it is, engraved like the etchin’s on this here pistol of mine. Ain’t no way I can forget a minute of it, and I’ve tried. Tried long and hard for, what, two decades or so. Some of it, I mean. Parts of it, though, I just gots to remember. Gots to. Remember ever’ last detail.
Ain’t no tale for the squeamish, so if you ain’t up to it, light a shuck for home now. Once I get started, I ain’t stoppin’, but if you stay, and if you believe what I’m fixin’ to tell you, and if you wanna share a fortune in gold by helpin’ help me find it, well, I’m in the market for some pardners and y’all look to fill the bill. Even you, li’l’ girlie.
Now the time I tell ’bout be a whole lot diff’rent than the one you be used to. Territory hereabouts is civilized, more or less, after twenty years. Wasn’t no railroad. A body’d be hard-pressed to find even a rail in Texas, I reckon, and nothin’ down here in New Mexico Territory. Even this here town wasn’t nothin’ but cactus and rocks. Wasn’t nothin’. Nothin’ but rattlesnakes.
Apaches had been at peace with us. Not that you can trust no Apache, and ’em truces had always been about as shaky as a scairt petticoat’s hands, but things might have gone different if it hadn’t been for the Army. Well, not the whole Army. Just that one fool lieutenant. And those red devils that had taken John Ward’s cattle and kidnapped his little boy.
So the Army goes and sends this snot-nosed kid with about as much experience as you three shirttails. George Bascom. I’d met the blue belly oncet. Didn’t think much of him. But the Army sent him and sixty troopers to Apache Pass just across the mountains in Arizona Territory, it bein’ New Mexico Territory back then. So Mr. Bascom arranges a little parley with Cochise. You recollect that name? Might be a little afore your time. No? Yeah. I figured y’all may have heard of him. Big chief among the Apaches, he was. Big medicine. Bigger medicine than any Apache then or since. Mangas Coloradas. Victorio. Nana. All of ’em combined couldn’t match Cochise for bravery, cunnin’, and savagery. Friendly at the time, Cochise was, but some of those fool high-graders down Tucson way had tol’ the fool lieutenant that Cochise was to blame for it all. Cochise, or his Apaches, had raided Mr. Ward’s ranch, stolen off his son, they said. Pack of lies that was. Lies that would get a bunch of men, women and young’uns - white and Mex - kilt. Maybe some of your kinfolk.
Anyway, Bascom had invited Cochise and six of his men to come talk. Under a flag of truce, I tell you, but oncet the boot-licker had those Apaches in his tent, he tried to arrest ’em. Said they’d hang for what they had done if they didn’t turn over that boy and the cattle. Well, Cochise ain’t no fool, and he didn’t take no threats from nobody. He whips out his knife, slits a hole in the canvas, makes good his escape. But the soldier boys capture the other Apaches.
You gots to understand that the Apaches don’t think like us white folks. Or maybe they do. Maybe they’s just as bad as the worst of our breed. Cochise, he wants his pals back, and the only way he knows how to do it is to capture some gringos. Have an exchange. You give me my men and I’ll give you these three white folks. That kind of thing, iffen you gets my meanin’. Bascom, fool that he was, he said nothin’ doin’, and that riled Cochise somethin’ fierce.
That commenced all the bloodshed. Apaches started liftin’ hair. Bascom up and hanged his six prisoners, some of ’em bein’ kinfolk to Cochise, which he had no call to do. And that was it. Cochise took to war, and when an Apache declares war, ’tain’t no fleetin’ thing. It’s a straight-out fight. Savagerous. It’s mean and ugly and hot and long. Long. Almost a dozen years passed by, a dozen bloody years, afore the Army ever made peace with Cochise. How old are you, li’l’ girlie? Yeah, you’d been still in your diapers by the time old Cochise give up the fight. You two boys, your ol’ papas might have been no older than you are now when it all started. But I was a man full growed back then. Caught right dag smack in the middle. Lucky to have my hair, I am.
The fracas at Apache Pass had happened back in February, a few months after Mr. Ward lost his longhorns and kid. That had been in 18 and 61, and I warrant y’all knows what happened in that year back east. In April, just a couple months after Cochise went on the prod, ’em good ol’ boys in South Caroliny opened fire on Fort Sumter. The big war was on. War of the Rebellion. Civil War - criminy, like there was anything civil about that! War for Southern Independence. War Between the States. Whatever you wanna call it. I was about to be out of a job.
Ever heard of John Butterfield? Didn’t expect so. Y’all think the Southern Pacific’s been around here forever, but it ain’t. I done tol’ y’all that much. No, in the year of ’61, if a body wanted to post a letter to Californy, he had to send it all the way around the Cape or put it aboard one of Mr. John Butterfield’s Concord stagecoaches. I worked for Mr. Butterfield. Never been ’board a ship in all my life, never even seen no ocean, and most of the water I seen wouldn’t fill a canteen. Might have been the best years of my life, workin’ for that glorious enterprise for ’em three-four years.
All the way from Missouri through Arkansas and the Indian Territory, Texas, New Mexico Territory and on to Californy. The Overland Mail Company, run by Mr. Butterfield. Twice-a-week mail service gettin’ your letters and passengers all the way to Californy in twenty-five days or less. I think they said it come to somethin’ like 2,800 miles. Reckon I was responsible for ’bout 120 of ’em, from Eagle Springs to Franklin, which is the name El Paso went by in those olden times I’m tellin’ y’all ’bout.
No, I wasn’t no jehu. I didn’t drive them temperamental mules. No, I was the guard. Messenger or conductor, we called it. Had me a muzzle-loadin’ shotgun for any bandits that might show his ugly head. And a Walker Colt, which I lost in a poker game at Dead Man’s Hole. Wisht I still had that old hoss pistol for it kicked like a cannon and could drop even a buffalo. Later, I got me an Enfield rifle, and the April I’m tellin’ y’all ’bout, the April that saw the war begin between the Yankees and the Rebels, the April I knowed I was ’bout to be hung out to dry without no job, by then I had me a brace of Navy Colts, which Mr. John James Giddings gots me outfitted with.
Texas Division. Mr. Giddings ran that ship. Texas Division of the Overland Mail, but with the South leavin’ the Union, and Texas joinin’ up with the Confederacy, John Butterfield had no choice but to shut down the Overland, so Mr. Giddings up and sold off all he could. Come out with $30,000 in gold coin, a right smart of money, then and now. His bosses told him to make sure the Confederates didn’t seize that chunk of change, and ordered him to take that money all the way to Californy. Union territory.
Giddings was a brave man, Union blue to the core, said he’d get the job done. He hired Sam Golden as his driver and me to guard. So we went ridin’ on what might have been the last official journey for Butterfield’s stagecoach line. When we hit Mesilla, we learnt word that Cochise’s Apaches was raidin’ all over that part of the country, so Giddings hired us two other gunmen. A Mexican named Enrique Valdez and a Wisconsin man called Bruce. Don’t know if that was his first name or his last name, or just some name he chose for hisself, but he was a good hand with a gun. So was the Mex. We figured they’d get tested, certain-sure.
Loaded up with powder and lead, water, not much for victuals other than hardtack, jerky, some coffee, which we figured we’d never get a chance to make, we rode off west from Mesilla into this desert country. Didn’t see no sign of Apaches, hardly no sign of white folks, as we raised dust to Cooke’s Spring. Then Soldier’s Farewell. Peaceable things was. Peaceable and quiet. Reckon I started to relax a mite, but then we come to Stein’s Peak.
Well, I didn’t relax no more. Come to think on it, I ain’t had me one peaceful moment since.
We was supposed to get a fresh team. Used to feed the passengers on the regular runs at that station, but there wasn’t no passengers, just us guards, the jehu and Mr. Giddings. Wasn’t no stockmen or station keeper at Stein’s Peak, either. Not alive. No stock. No grub. Nothin’. Not even the station. Not much, I mean. Charred timbers and blacked rocks, the walls fallin’ down. Ashes. Blood and dead folks. Ugly.
I smelt the smoke afore I seen it snakin’ its way into the blue sky, so I called down to the boys inside the coach to be ready, but you just can’t be ready for what we come ’cross. Ever smelt a human body afire, kids? Smells just like a burnt steak, it does, only it don’t make you hungry. Might even make a man swear off eatin’ meat of any kind. Turn a stomach, it does, by the stench alone. And have mercy if you see what the body looks like, what an Apache’ll do. Even made our jehu scatter his breakfast all over the driver’s box, and Sam Golden had been in the territory for some ten, fifteen years. Apaches ain’t got no mercy in their souls, and there ain’t nobody nowhere in this world that knows how to torture better than one of ’em savages. And amongst the Apaches, the Cherry Cows, which is what we called the Chiricahua, they was the brutalest.
Stein’s Peak Station had always been fortified. Rock walls. Plenty of good men with guns. Had to be, this deep in Apache country, this far from civilized folks, and I always figured that ’em Indians would have raided somethin’ that looked a mite easier. Cooke’s Spring. Maybe Dragoon Springs. But Cochise and his boys was always full of surprises.
They sure had surprised the folks at Stein’s Peak Station.
We pulled the Concord to a stop in the middle of the station’s grounds, and I climbed down from my perch while Sam Golden blowed chunks of salt pork and beans out of his gizzard.
“My word ...” Mr. Giddings began as he stepped out of the stage, then leaned back, knees bucklin’, and fumbled in his pockets for some handkerchief. Bloodier’n a gander-pullin’, what we was seein’. Mr. Giddings wiped his face, which kept gettin’ paler, whiter’n even me, knockin’ off that bell crown hat he wore. “My word,” he said again, only this time much softer.
“Ain’t no word for it,” I tells him, pullin’ my bandanna up over my nose and mouth, and went to take a look-see, keepin’ my Enfield rifle ready, cocked, my finger on that trigger.
Bruce and the Mex took care of the poor, dumb soul that had had the misfortune to get hisself captured still alive. Red vermin had hung’m by his ankles over a bed of hot coals. Well, no point in tellin’ you young’uns about that. They also pulled the burnin’ body of the station keeper. Least, we figgered him to be the keeper. Couldn’t rightly be sure, black as the body was burnt.
I found two other bodies, filled with arrows. Looked like bloated porcupines, they did. Ghastly. That’s what Sam Golden called it, oncet he got his voice back. Reckon that’s about the sum of it.
The Mex and Bruce, they spread out to scout things a mite, ’emselves, and Mr. Giddings, he recovered and put his hat back on, walked over toward me. Like I said, Giddings, he wasn’t no coward. It’s just that sights like that’ll shock even the most hardened rapscallion that ever breathed good air.
“Is there anything we can do for them, Mister Grey?” Giddings asked me.
Shakin’ my head, I pulled down my bandanna and spat. Bitter taste it left in my mouth. Like gall. “Bury ’em if you want to risk your own life, and that gold,” is what I tol’ him. I pointed the Enfield’s barrel at the two gents felled by dozens of Cherry Cow arrows. “This couldn’t have happened too long ago. Turkey vultures and coyot’s ain’t got to the bodies yet.”
“Well, we cannot leave them,” Mr. Giddings said. “Not like this.”
“Sure we can,” I tells him. “Lessen, like I said, you wanna join ’em.”
“Poisoned the well!” the Mex cried out, and he let a string of curses fly out of his mouth, speakin’ Mex and English.
I cussed my ownself. Our mules was plumb tuckered out, and I didn’t see how they could get us through the Peloncillo Mountains. Not without fresh water. We needed a fresh team, but the Apaches had taken care of that.
“Smart thing, Mister Giddings,” I said, “might be to turn back.”
“I have my orders,” he said. “Besides, surely the Army’s in the field.”
My notions ran contrary to his’n’s. “Nearest fort’s Buchanan. Maybe Aravaipa, no, they’re callin’ it Breckinridge these days, but ’em two posts be a long way from this here pike, sir. And all ’em soldier boys gots their hands full. Closest town’s Tucson, but that might as well be Washin’ton City, ’cause ’em miles’ll be the hardest you ever traveled.”
“We’re not turning back,” he said. Man had gumption, a belly full of it. “Perhaps the next station will have fresh livestock.”
“Doubtful,” I tol’ him, and once again I used my Enfield for a pointer, this time aimin’ it toward the Peloncillos. “You know how come they named that Doubtful Cañon?”
He knowed. Had to know, him bein’ a big man with the Overland, but he didn’t answer. So I tells him. “Doubtful,” I said, “anybody’ll get through that alive if the Apaches is ornery.” I let out a little laugh, though there wasn’t nary a thing funny, and waved my hand at all the death and blood and smoke and ruin amongst us. “In case you ain’t noticed, sir, the Apaches is ornery. Ornery and then some.”
“We proceed,” he said, louder this time, and I noticed that the Mex, Bruce and old Sam had gathered about us. Sam Golden rubbed the rest of the vomit off his face, and the Mex crossed hisself. Bruce didn’t blink, didn’t nod, just stood there. He’d dealt hisself into the game and wasn’t foldin’. Couldn’t fold. He was a hired gunman. Reckon you’d call me that, too.
“We got some water,” Sam Golden said. “I’ll let the mules drink a mite. They’ve cooled down enough by now.”
“Good man,” Giddings said. “While you tend the team, the rest of us will bury these poor victims of unholy barbarity.”
“Bury ’em?” I belted out. “You off your nut, sir?” I jabbed the Enfield barrel toward the slob those fiends had tortured. “You want your brains to boil? Wanna beg to die? ’Cause that’s what’ll happen if ’em butchers come back!”
“Why should they come back, Mister Grey?” Mr. Giddings had removed his coat and waistcoat, foldin’ ’em up neatly. “They have no knowledge of our presence. We have fired no shots, given no cries of alarm. The horses and mules are gone, and there is nothing left here but ... but ...” He couldn’t control the shudder, but it didn’t stop him. “It is my Christian duty to see these men given a proper burial, or as proper as we can under the trying circumstances. It is your Christian duty, too.”
The Mex, he said the only thing. “Sí.” And crossed hisself once more.
Ask me, it was a mistake, but I wasn’t nothin’ more’n a hired hand, so Mr. Giddings barked out the orders, even if barkin’ wasn’t his nature, and we did his biddin’s. With only one shovel and two picks, one of ’em burned and blackened that the Cherry Cows had left amongst all that ruin, between us, and not all of us as full of Christian charity and decency as Mr. John James Giddings, we made fast work of that burial. Only dug one grave, and it pretty shallow, and we had nothin’ to spare as shrouds, no wood around that wasn’t burnt or part of the stagecoach for a coffin, or Cherry Cow arrows, so we just dragged the dead to the pit and covered ’em with sand. Doubt if it would keep the wolves offen ’em, but I didn’t tell the boss man that. Mr. Giddings made a little cross out of rocks to mark the grave, and he kept his prayer short. He spouted out some Scripture. Said it was from Psalms, but I’d have to take his word for it. Maybe he was prayin’ for us, I thought, as much as them guys the Apaches had kilt, ’cause when he said - “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” - I figured that’s exactly where we was headed. The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Only we wasn’t walkin’, but ridin’ in a stagecoach. Ridin’ right through Doubtful Cañon and a passel of Chiricahua Apaches on the warpath. But fear no evil? You show me a white man who says he ain’t afeared of Apaches, and I’ll show you a liar or a fool.
Mr. Giddings tossed some dust on that pit, and we was done with it. We all made a beeline for the Concord. The Mex asked if he could ride atop the coach with Sam, stead of me. Reckon he needed some air. Couldn’t blame him none. I let him.
That’s how come I’m still here to tell you young’uns this here story. Sam Golden and the Mex rode atop. Me and Bruce and Mr. Giddings sat in the coach, and we lit out for Doubtful Cañon just up the road.
Copyright 2007 by Johnny D. Boggs