Story by Martin Roy Hill
Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan
Deputy Jim Youngblood turned the black and white Cherokee off the highway onto the dirt road leading to the McReynolds’ ranch. The Jeep kicked up a rooster tail of dust as it roared along the dry, desert road. Next to Youngblood sat his boss, Sheriff John Callister. They both saw old man McReynolds waiting on his porch, his old Winchester in his hand. The rifle wasn’t a threat. It was simply as much of the old man’s daily attire as his black Stetson and snakeskin boots.
Youngblood stopped the Jeep in front of the ranch house and Callister climbed out, pulling the brim of his own Stetson lower against the bright morning sun.
“Morning, Dave,” he said.
McReynolds was in his late sixties, tall and weathered. Long curls of pure white hair protruded from beneath his black hat. He nodded. “Morning, sheriff.”
“Hot day.” Callister wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Morning, Mr. McReynolds,” said Youngblood, trailing the sheriff.
“Deputy,” McReynolds replied.
The three men stood looking at each other, nodding their heads, saying nothing. Finally, Callister spoke.
“Ah, look, Dave . . .”
“Problem, sheriff?” the old man asked.
“Yeah, well, we’ve had complaints again,” Callister said. “About you grazing your herd out on Dead Apache Gorge.”
“It’s Navajo land, Dave,” Callister said. “You know that. This isn’t the first time I’ve been out here to tell you that.”
“Navajo land, my white ass,” McReynolds said. He raised the rifle with one hand and used it to point toward Dead Apache Gorge. “They ain’t used that land in more than a hundred years, sheriff, and I’ve got cows to feed.”
“Makes no difference, Dave. You can graze them on your own land,” Callister said. “Or on BLM land. Or over on Ned Merritt’s feed land.”
“I gotta pay to graze on them last two,” McReynolds said.
“And that’s the price of doing business, Dave,” the sheriff said.
“It’s sacred land, Mr. McReynolds,” Youngblood said. “My people consider it a burial ground.”
“Burial ground?” scoffed McReynolds. “Ain’t none of your people buried there, deputy. That’s why it’s call Dead Apache Gorge, not Dead Navajo Gorge.”
“Mr. McReynolds, I’m sure you know the story—”
“Sure, I know the story,” McReynolds interrupted. “A bunch of renegade Apaches attacked the Navajos, and the Navajos got revenge by trapping them in the gorge and setting a brush fire. What Apaches weren’t killed by guns or arrows, got burned to death as the fire spread through the gorge. What’s that got to do with grazing cattle?”
“My people don’t like disturbing the dead,” Youngblood said, not looking at the rancher. He felt embarrassed having to explain Navajo tradition to a white man. Most folks in the area understood Navajo legends and beliefs and respected them. But not old man McReynolds. “We believe it stirs up the chindi, the evil spirits left behind by the dead.”
“Consider it a war grave, Dave,” Callister said. “You wouldn’t want to go mucking around the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, would you?”
“If the Arizona was covered with cheap grazing feed, damn right I’d graze on it.”
“Listen up, Dave,” said the sheriff, exasperated. “My deputies and I will be patrolling Dead Apache Gorge, and if we find any of your cows grazing there, they will be confiscated. And if we can prove you put your cows on that land, you’ll be arrested for trespassing. Understand?”
“Why bother, sheriff?” McReynolds said with a laugh. “If your deputy there is right, evil spirits will come get me! Hah!”
The old man patted his lips and made a whooping sound. Deputy Youngblood turned away, gritting his teeth. Sheriff Callister watched the old man a moment more, then turned away, too.
“Either way, Dave,” he said over his shoulder. “Either way, you’ll pay the price.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“In a way, Dave has a point,” the sheriff said to his deputy as they drove away.
“Well, it’s an Apache grave site. Why do the Navajos care?”
Youngblood sighed. He stared straight ahead, as he answered.
“There was more to the story than Mr. McReynolds told,” he said. “The Apaches raided one of our villages, killed everyone except three young girls which they took prisoner. When our people trapped the raiders in the gorge, they offered the Apaches a chance to make reparations. That’s our tradition. The Apaches agreed. But when they were told to release the three girls, they couldn’t. They had already raped and killed them.
“That’s when it happened. The Din Nay—my people—didn’t just seek revenge. The whole thing became pure blood lust. Navajos up on the rocks fired down on the Apaches and their horses. Others set fire to the brush. The gorge is a natural chimney, and the fire spread quickly up the draw, burning the dead and the living alike. The gorge echoed with the screams and cries of men and animals.
“When the fire subsided, the Navajo warriors rode into the gorge and took the scalps of those who weren’t too badly burned. We Navajo don’t normally touch the dead. We believe the chindi—the bad spirits—will curse you if you do. They will give you a sickness that can kill you or drive you mad. But these Navajo warriors took those scalps and tied them to war spears they stuck into the ground at the gorge’s mouth as a warning.
“Later, when they realized what they had done, our warriors repented. They went through a spiritual cleansing. But it didn’t matter. Over the years, each of those involved grew sick in spirit or body. The same happened to anyone who spent any length of time in the gorge. So, we leave it alone. That Mr. McReynolds is stirring up the chindi again. He is already a sick man. He has the ghost sickness. My people can see that. But that’s not what frightens us most.”
“What then?” asked Callister.
“We fear he might anger the chindi so much, they might come back to seek revenge on us Navajos.”
— ♦♦♦ —
McReynolds heeded Sheriff Callister’s warning for two weeks. When he was certain the deputies were no longer keeping an eye on him, he led his cattle out into the gorge to graze again. A few nights later, as he rounded up his cows, McReynolds noticed a light in a far corner of the gorge. He drove nearer, and realized the light was flickering like a flame. He stopped his pickup and got out. In the distance, he heard voices, a low droning chant. McReynolds took a set of binoculars from his truck and peered at the distant light. He saw figures moving back and forth around what appeared to be a large campfire.
“Navajos don’t go into Dead Apache Gorge, my ass,” McReynolds muttered as he climbed back into his truck. “I’ll make that Youngblood eat his own damn words.”
The rancher gunned his engine and sped toward the light. The pickup smashed through brush and tall grass, until its headlights shone on a clearing at the back of the gorge.
No fire. No dancing figures.
McReynolds swung out of his truck wielding a large, black flashlight and shined it around the clearing.
The only sound was what the rancher assumed was the soft moan of the wind sweeping along the walls of the gorge.
Then McReynolds realized the brush and the grass stood perfectly still.
There was no wind blowing.
McReynolds tried to ignore the cold chill creeping down his spine. Nevertheless, he turned, climbed into the truck, and threw it in gear. With the sound of tires tearing up gravel, he spun the truck around and raced back to his house.
“Damned Indians,” he muttered.
— ♦♦♦ —
“I’m sorry, Mr. McReynolds, I don’t know who you saw out there last night, but it wasn’t any of my people,” Deputy Youngblood said. “Navajo’s avoid that gorge, especially at night.”
“I know what I saw, deputy,” the rancher said. “I saw Indians yipping and yelling and dancing around a fire. You and the sheriff here keep telling me that’s Navajo land, so it had to be your people.”
“What were you doing in Dead Apache Gorge last night anyway, Dave?” asked Sheriff Callister.
McReynolds fumbled for an explanation.
“Why, one of my cows got loose and I was looking for her,” he lied.
Callister nodded as if he believed McReynolds’ explanation, which he did not.
“Well, what say we go take a look at where you said you saw this fire,” the sheriff said. “If anything, it’s dangerous to have a fire out there this time of year.”
The color drained from Youngblood’s dark face.
“Sheriff, I can’t go out there,” he said. “Send me into a bar full of drunk desperadoes, but not into that gorge.”
“That’s fine, Jim,” the sheriff said. “You wait here while Dave and I take a spin out there.”
“Not a good idea, sir.”
“I’ll be fine, Jim” Callister said. “Let’s go, Dave.”
They drove the sheriff’s Jeep into the gorge, following the tire tracks McReynolds’ pickup made the previous evening. When they reached the end of the gorge, where the draw began its creep up the mountainside, they stopped and got out.
“This the place?” Callister asked.
“Yep,” said McReynolds. “I figure they ran up that draw when they heard me coming.”
“You said they had a fire?”
The rancher nodded.
“Big one. Big enough for me to see from way back there.” McReynolds gestured behind them.
Callister walked around the clearing, studying the ground. He stopped, wiped sweat from his brow, and spoke.
“Well, Dave, hate to tell you, but there’s no evidence of a fire anywhere.”
“I saw it, sheriff!”
“See for yourself,” Callister said. “There’s no burnt wood or brush. No fire ring of rocks. And, Dave, there ain’t no footprints here except yours and mine.”
— ♦♦♦ —
McReynolds rinsed the last dish and placed it in the drying rack. The ranch house had a dishwasher, but he hadn’t used it since his wife died a decade ago. They had no children, and the rancher never entertained. He wasn’t the kind of man to waste money to save himself a little time and effort.
It was night. As he toweled off his hands, he glanced out the window. His own reflection looked back at him. Or what, at first, he thought was his reflection. The face that stared back at him was not the weather-creased face and unruly ruff of white hair he saw in the mirror each morning. The face in the window was younger, longer, the eyes darker and filled with hatred. The hair was black and long, the skin brown and streaked with white and black war paint.
It was the face of an Indian warrior.
The instant McReynolds realized what he was looking at, it was gone. McReynolds dropped the towel in the sink, grabbed his Winchester, and rushed out the back door.
Only the whisper of the wind blowing through the dry brush and the mournful distant howl of a coyote.
Then another sound rose above the wind and the coyote’s bay.
McReynolds stepped further into the darkness, listening.
Voices not far away.
McReynolds slowly backpedaled, then turned and dashed toward the house, his heart pounding in his chest. As he neared the rear door, he spotted something protruding from one of wooden posts on the porch, something that hadn’t been there when he rushed out the backdoor.
He stopped and stared, then crept toward it, still staring.
Embedded in one of the support posts for the overhang was what McReynolds thought was a hatchet. Its metal head glinted in the porch light. As he drew closer, he noticed strips of rawhide or sinew lashed the head of the hatchet to the handle. A trio of brightly colored feathers festooned the handle.
It wasn’t a hatchet.
It was a tomahawk.
— ♦♦♦ —
“There it is, sheriff,” McReynolds said. “Just where I found it last night.”
Sheriff Callister studied the tomahawk, glanced at his deputy, then at McReynolds.
“You say this has been here only since last night?”
The rancher nodded. “Someone must’ve thrown it at me. That Indian I chased off. Tried to kill me, the bastard.”
“Right,” Callister said, his voice doubtful. He tried to pull the tomahawk out of the post, but the rotted lashing snapped, and the handle came away without the blade. “I doubt anyone threw this, Dave. It looks as if it’s been here for years. The strapping is desiccated and falling apart. These feathers, too. And this blade . . .” Callister tugged on the ax head until it pulled it free. “. . . Is pitted with rust.”
“It didn’t look that old last night,” blustered McReynolds. “I tell you, some damn Indian tried to kill me with that thing.” The rancher jabbed a finger at Youngblood. “Probably one of his bunch.”
The deputy took the pieces of the tomahawk from Callister and examined them.
“This isn’t Navajo, Mr. McReynolds,” he said. “This is Apache. From around the late 1800s.”
Youngblood ran his thumb across the edge of the blade.
“The sheriff’s right,” he said. “This blade is so dull, I doubt it could embed in the wood.” He hammered the blade against the post. It barely made a dent. “See?”
“What are you saying, deputy?” McReynolds demanded.
The sheriff answered.
“Now, Dave,” he said. “I think Jim and I are saying the same thing. Nobody threw this at you last night. It must have been stuck in that post for decades, just sitting there getting weather.”
“You think I wouldn’t notice that thing before now?”
Callister shook his head.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Dave,” he said.
— ♦♦♦ —
“What do you think, boss?” Youngblood asked as he steered the Cherokee onto the main road.
Callister sighed heavily.
“I really don’t know, Jim,” he said. “Dave McReynolds has always been a cantankerous old fool. But seeing things? A fire dance in the gorge? An Indian watching him in the window? And in war paint?”
The sheriff shook his head and chewed at the inside of his mouth.
“Well, that tomahawk wasn’t his imagination,” Youngblood said. “That was real enough.”
“Perhaps, but no one threw it at him. You saw what condition it was in.” The sheriff gnawed the inside of mouth again. “Dave is getting old. Living out here alone, never going into town unless he has to. Perhaps he’s getting senile or something.”
“Maybe,” said the deputy.
“You sound like you don’t agree,” Callister said. “What do you think?”
Youngblood scratched his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll only . . . laugh.”
“It’s like I told Mr. McReynolds the other day,” the deputy said. “The Din Nay don’t go into the gorge because of the chindi. We believe they can make you sick, even drive you mad.”
The sheriff was silent. Youngblood looked at him.
“You’re not laughing, boss.”
“No, I’m not, Jim,” Callister said. “No, I’m not.”
— ♦♦♦ —
It was dark by the time McReynolds herded the last of his cattle in from Dead Apache Gorge, and the electricity in the ranch house was out. That wasn’t unusual. The power lines running to the house were old and frequently came down when a strong wind blew, as it was blowing just then. McReynolds kept a gasoline generator next to the house for that reason. Still, the old man cursed as he climbed from his pickup and stumbled through the dark guided only by the fainted beam of his old flashlight.
Somewhere, a coyote howled, the sound brought closer by the wind. A night owl’s cry answered. The desert scrub rustled.
The generator refused to start. The rancher shook the machine, listening for the slosh of gasoline in the tank. Empty. He cursed again, walked back to the truck, and pulled a gas can from the bed. He opened the cap, shook the can, and heard the reassuring slosh of nearly full can.
As he walked back toward the house, the flashlight died. Darkness enveloped him. He tripped once, twice, and finally said, “Fuck it.” There were candles in the kitchen. He’d use them tonight and refuel the generator in the morning.
McReynolds stumbled up the three steps to the porch, placed the gas can next to the door, then stepped inside, locking the door behind him.
— ♦♦♦ —
The shrieking wind woke him. At least, he thought it was the wind. After shrugging off the stupor of sleep, McReynolds realized the shrieking was a cacophony of voices screaming and yelling. A wavering light reflected on his bedroom window.
The old man climbed out of bed and pulled back the window curtain. A man rode past on a horse, a flaming torch held in one hand. The light from the flame showed the man’s face streaked with black and white war paint.
“Goddamn Indians,” he cursed.
McReynolds pulled on a pair of jeans, grabbed his Winchester, and banged into a wall as he tried to rush out of the room. He backed up, found the candle he’d left next to the bed and lit it, then made his way into the kitchen. Through the window, he spotted more riders, at least four all together, circling the house and carrying torches, their faces painted in the way of the warrior.
“I’ll be a sonofabitch,” he muttered. “Those Navajos think they’re going to scare me off my land? Like hell.”
McReynolds dropped the candle, jacked a round into the Winchester’s chamber, and rushed out the back door. The door banged into the gas can he’d left there, knocking it over. The loose cap fell off. Gasoline gurgled out onto the wooden porch.
“Hey! . . . Hey!” the rancher screamed. He fired into the air. “Get the hell off my property!”
The riders ignored the gunshot. They continued circling the house, their voices high, angry screeches. McReynolds fired again into the air. One warrior stopped, gave the rancher an angry stare, then tossed his torch onto the porch.
McReynolds staggered back, startled by the flame. He recovered and kicked the torch off the porch. Taking direct aim at the rider who threw it, he fired.
The warrior merely glared at him.
The rancher was no marksman, but at this close distance, he knew he couldn’t miss.
Another torch arced through the air and landed on the porch. McReynolds turned and fired at the rider who launched it. Again, he appeared to miss.
A third flaming missile landed on the porch. McReynolds turned to shoot, but another torch flew at him. At his back, he felt a sudden rush of heat. A torch had landed in the puddle of gasoline.
McReynolds leaped from the porch, landed hard, and rolled. A horse reared up over him. He fired again, to no effect. Scrambling to his feet, he fired twice more, but the warriors now circled him. The hunches of a horse smashed into him, knocking him into another animal. A warrior ripped the rifle from his hands. He fell again, and now a forest of equine legs danced around him. A hoof struck him a glancing blow to the head, stunning him. He felt himself roughly lifted and pulled onto a horse.
Then there was nothing.
— ♦♦♦ —
Volunteer firefighters were hosing down the last embers of the old ranch house when Sheriff Callister and Deputy Youngblood pulled up in their individual vehicles. The fire chief waved them over as they stepped from the black-and-white four-bys.
“Have you found the old man?” the sheriff asked.
The fire chief shook his head. “No, and to be honest, this house burned so hot there may not be much to find.”
Youngblood shifted uneasily at the discussion of death. He looked at the ground and kicked a stone.
“Cause?” the sheriff asked.
“We found a scorched gas can with no cap on the back porch. There was a power outage in these parts last night. There’s a generator next to the house, but its fuel tank is empty. It looks like he was getting some gas for it and it spilled. We also found brass candle holders in the kitchen. We think he dropped a candle near the where the gas spilled, and the whole place went up.”
Callister nodded slowly and muttered, “Shit.”
Callister turned and found Youngblood squatting, staring at the ground.
“What’s up, Jim?”
“Look at this,” the deputy said, pointing to the ground. “Horse hoof prints. A lot of them.” He pointed to the left, then to the right. “They come from that way and lead that way. And they’re not shoed. That’s how the tribes used to ride them.” He looked up. “Even we shoe our horses these days.”
The sheriff studied the tracks. Despite the boot prints left by the firefighters, and the drag marks of their hoses, the hoof prints clearly stood out.
“Multiple horses,” he said.
The deputy stood and followed the tracks.
“Looks like they circle the house,” he said.
They traced the tracks around to the backside of the house. Youngblood spotted a large, weathered branch on the ground and picked it up.
It was long and topped with burnt wrappings.
“Looks like a torch,” the sheriff said. “An old one though. As old that the tomahawk McReynolds showed us the other day.”
“Look here.” Youngblood pointed at the ground at two shell casings.
The sheriff picked them up.
“They’re from a Winchester. Same caliber as Dave’s.”
“He must’ve been shooting at something,” the deputy said.
“Or someone,” the sheriff said. “Jim, could these tracks have been made by Navajos trying to scare McReynolds?”
“These days, we hire lawyers to do that,” Youngblood said, distracted. He was staring into the distance, toward where the hoof prints led, toward Dead Apache Gorge. The sheriff noticed.
“What is it, Jim?”
“Chindi,” Youngblood said softly.
“Wait here.” Callister dropped the shell casings and walked toward his vehicle.
“Where you going, boss?”
“You know where.”
When he returned thirty minutes later, Sheriff Callister’s face was pale and drawn. He carried a rifle in one hand.
“What’s wrong, boss?” Youngblood asked.
The sheriff handed the rifle to his deputy, then removed his hat and wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
Youngblood studied the rifle. It was an ancient Winchester, its wooden stood dried and cracked, its barrel corroded with age. “You found this in the gorge?”
Callister nodded. “Looked at the initials carved into the stock.”
The deputy found the initials. “DM,” he said. “Dave McReynolds? But it can’t be his Winchester. This rifle’s all weathered and rusted.”
“Just like that tomahawk Dave found the other night,” the sheriff said. “And that torch you found today.”
“I don’t understand, boss.”
Callister cleared his throat.
“I followed the tracks toward the gorge. They peter out before they reach its mouth. Just sort of fade away. I looked around and found that . . . and one other thing.”
“At the mouth of the gorge, I found an old war spear sticking out of the ground, placed there like a warning. Tied to the top was a flap of what I thought was withered leather. But when I looked closer, I realized it wasn’t leather at all.”
“What was it?”
“A human scalp,” Callister said. “Dried and weathered, as if it’d been hanging there for a long time—decades, maybe more.
Callister looked at Youngblood with eyes haunted by what they saw.
“And embedded in the scalp were the last remnants of Dave McReynolds’ white hair.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Jack was a sucker for a pretty face, especially when the pretty face belonged to a damsel in distress. “My name is Jack Kovacs. A girl I met in Chicago asked me to track you down. She was expecting to meet you yesterday.” Ever since tracking this guy down, he wondered what the broad had gotten herself into trying to hook up with this guy. One thing was certain, what HE had gotten mixed up in might leave him down for the count.