Once I Moved Like the Wind

by John McNally

 

The baby snuffled, started to pull a face and sighed. His mother, Jacali, lay on the hot ground with the others; she raised her blanket and covered herself and her baby son so that the sound of his cries would not carry.

A mile or so away, where the rutted track wound like a ribbon amongst the green leaved creosote bushes and the spiny mesquite shrubs, three men rode towards the hidden group of Chiricahua women and children.

They rode with their heads down under a sun so bright that the whole sky shone like polished silver and the heat burned like a naked flame through their clothes. The air felt hot, slow and heavy.

The lead rider, a tall thin man of thirty with a high crowned wide brimmed hat jammed low on his head, took his canteen off his saddle horn and swirled it to see how much liquor he had left. He pulled out the stopper with his teeth and took a long pull. He held the warm mescal in his mouth for a moment and let it trickle down his throat. The only sound was the dusty thud of their horses’ hooves on the dry ground.

‘What do you reckon Lem?’

Lem jammed the stopper back in his canteen. The dry leather of his saddled creaked as he turned to look at the man behind him

‘What do I reckon about what?’

Barney had a thin face burnished with a whisky flush; his cheek bulged where he had packed it with tobacco,

‘I said they’re offering as much as $25 for an apache scalp. Get us a few of them why we’d be richer than possum gravy.’

Lem turned forward again and swept an arm out

‘There ain’t no goddam Apaches for miles.’

In the hollow the baby grew increasingly restless. Goyaale lay close by next to his pony; he stood and pulled the pony to his feet. It was a stocky pinto filled with courage and speed, Goyaale ran a hand down his forehead to his muzzle. He glanced at the others and whispered

‘I will lead them away, I will head north. Maybe they ride in peace.’ Goyaale looked little more than a boy but was already known for his bravery and spirit. He was slim and small with long dark hair held in a thick headband, a bow looped across his back.

He wore a buckskin shirt and a breach cloth, his moccasins long enough to reach his thighs were folded back below the knees making a pocket for his knife.

He walked his horse away down an arroyo; the gully sides crumbled and cracked a dusty trough of land that climbed to a ridge half a mile away. Goyaale knew that the riders would see him when he came out onto a basin of sandy, stony land with sparse bush and coarse grass. He decided to lead them to the far hills, grey with stone and shale and their slopes dotted with brush. In the far distance rose the Jemez Mountains shaded blue against the yellowed plains.

Goyaale leapt onto his pony’s back and rode him immediately north where the land lifted to a dry pinyon covered steep sided hill that rose to a small plateau. He stood on the skyline and watched as the three white men came towards him through the shimmering heat haze.

‘Hey,’ said the third man, Dewey, a scrawny old timer whose skin was so dark he looked like he had been baked on a fire ‘Lookit, there’s $25 worth of Apache set there watching us.’ They nudged their horses over towards the hills where Goyaale waited. The young brave dismounted, he slid off his pony’s back like water off a rock and the young Chiricahua stood shoulder to shoulder with his proud pinto. Lem pulled out his Mississippi rifle, loaded her up, thumbed back the hammer and squinted down the sights. Barney said

‘Don’t spook him Lem make sure you hit him but good.’ The shot rang out, the big barrel lifted with the recoil and the bullet missed Goyaale and kicked up dust ten paces to his right. Lem rammed the rifle back in his saddle holster and said

‘Goddamit Barney hollering in my ear don’t help none. I had him deader than a door nail until you started yapping.’ Barney turned in his saddle and looked at Dewey, Dewey raised his eyebrows and said

‘Lem when you fire that gun the safest place to stand is with the feller your aiming at.’

‘I killed me plenty’ said Lem ‘and they all deserved what they got. Apaches ain’t no different, them fellers need killing anyhow just on general principles.’

They looked over at the ridge and saw that the young brave had not moved other than to fold his arms across his chest and wait. Lem stretched forward in the saddle, leaned his arms across the pommel, pushed his hat up on his brow with his fingers and said

‘Lookit, that boy reckons he ain’t scared one bit. Come on let’s cut some dirt, let’s get up there after him.’ The three of them kicked their horses into a run.

Goyaale watched them head his way and smiled, the others were safe now and he was content. I fight for my tribe, he thought, it is these men who are at fault not the Chiricahua. He welcomed the challenge. In his short life he had already proved that he could endure hardship without complaint and that he was a stranger to fear. He had dreamed of the day he would die and believed that it was many years away but he would welcome it when it came. He would be dressed in his best clothes with his face painted and wrapped in rich blankets; they would carry his body to a cave in the mountains drapped in splendour and seclusion.

He watched the men ride towards him and he could tell that they thought it would be a simple thing to kill him, but men had underestimated him before and lived to regret it.

I am warmed by the sun, Goyaale thought, rocked by the winds and sheltered by the trees. I can go everywhere with a good feeling. Come then white men if you seek to harm me then we shall ride the clouds together.

Goyaale’s pony stamped his hooves, tossed his head and shook his mane. Goyaale vaulted onto his back and the two of them rode off at speed flowing with grace and elegance into the hills.

Lem, Dewey and Barney whooped and hollered, slapped their horses and booted them into a wild untidy run after him; they clattered across the desiccated land encased in searing sunlight. Goyaale knew where he was leading them and the three men followed in a reckless haze of alcohol and dust.

The day burned hot clear and breathless. Heat waves bounced off the skyline into a scorching air that seemed to glitter across the horizon. They could taste the heat and smell the hot dirt that swirled around them.

Two Chiricahua men sat on ponies on a far peak and watched

‘The boy has done well.’

‘Yes, he has saved my grandson,’ said the old chief ‘he will lead them towards us but we will watch, let us give him this day. He is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.’

‘He will bring them this way.’

‘Yes but not to seek our help. I believe his challenge is to himself and the white men set against him. I think he will leap the sky.’

The scalp hunters chased Goyaale across the land and he led them higher into the jagged hills where the slopes became steeper and brighter against the sky.

Lem started to lose interest; he could feel his horse tire and hear the heavy laboured breathing deep in his chest. He slapped him on the rump and lashed the rawhide reins across his shoulder; he loosened the reins and let the horse work its own way up the crest of the hill. He reloaded his Mississippi rifle as he rode.

They all saw the young Chiricahua top the rise and race down the other side, they closed in

‘His horse must be played out by now,’ shouted Barney ‘I could have sworn it almost stumbled.’ The land hardened and they saw the boy’s silhouette moving down the steep incline in a thick screen of powdery dirt, but whatever secrets the dusty cover hid from them it kept to itself.

The three men thundered down the narrow trail, their horses coated in sweat that lathered around the saddle and neck and foamed across their hind legs. The trail had been eroded by the wind over time and dirt billowed in a sandy red cloud, as they ran it rose and swirled around them masking the three riders. Men and horses rode on like pale ghosts. Their horses’ hooves hammered against the powdery, fine earth. The warm wind tugged at their hats and pushed their coats out behind them. They gained on the young boy; they crouched forward and leaned into the necks of their horses. The gradient increased as the trail wound down and they saw the young Apache emerge from the dust cloud and burst forward like an arrow. The boy shouted and leapt into nothing.

In one terrifying moment the three men saw the ravine yawning in front of them. Barney and Dewey did not have time to react, vainly their horses tried to stop but both horses and riders plunged over the edge, falling like rag dolls to the distant rocks below. Lem leaned back in his saddle and dragged on the reins; his horse sank onto his hind legs and skidded to a halt. Lem tumbled off and rolled sideways; he jumped up and threw his rifle to his shoulder. He stood on the rim of the gorge and waited for the dust to clear.

Goyaale and his pony cleared the gaping ravine, almost 20 feet wide, now he stood straight backed with his elk horn bow in his hand, safe on the other side. He pointed the bow to the ground and threaded an arrow to the bowstring. He held three fingers on the bowstring around the feather fletching and raised the bow. He drew back the bowstring his back muscles taut with the effort until his finger rested under his chin and the string touched his nose and lips. He waited his breathing calm and even.

The figure of the white man loomed out of the settling dust and stood in a shroud of floury dirt. Goyaale saw the rifle barrel watching him like an unblinking eye and he relaxed his fingers to release the arrow. It hummed across the open space and slammed into the man’s chest.

The two Chiricahua on the hill watched and the old chief said

‘What did he shout as he made that jump?’ The brave next to him said

‘The Mexicans have their own name for Goyaale, he used that, he shouted Geronimo as he jumped.’

And that’s how it all started…….maybe.

 

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