Read CHAPTER VI of Tales of Aztlan, free online book, by George Hartmann, on ReadCentral.com.

INDIAN LORE. THE WILY NAVAJO

The principal source of the money supply was the United States Government, which maintained many forts and army posts in the Territories as a safeguard against the Apache and Navajo Indians. During the Civil War, the Navajo Indians broke out and raided the Mexican settlements along the Rio Grande and committed many outrages and thefts. The Government gave these Indians the surprise of their lives. An army detachment of United States California volunteers swooped suddenly down on the Navajos and surprised and conquered them in the strongholds of their own country. The whole tribe was forced to surrender, was disarmed, and transported to Fort Stanton by the Government.

This military reservation lies on the eastern boundary of New Mexico, on the edge of the staked plains of Texas. Here the Navajos were kept in mortal terror of their hereditary enemies, the Comanche Indians, for several years, and they were so thoroughly cowed and subdued by this stratagem that they were good and peacable ever after. The Government allowed them to reoccupy their native haunts and granted them a reservation of seventy-five miles square. These Indians are blood relatives to the savage Apaches. They speak the same language, as they are also of Mongolian origin. They came originally from Asia in an unexplained manner and over an unknown route. They have always been the enemies of the Pueblo Indians, who are descendants of the Toltec and Aztec races. Unlike the Pueblo Indians, who live in villages and maintain themselves with agricultural pursuits, the Navajos are nomads and born herdsmen.

The Navajo tribe is quite wealthy now, as they possess many thousands of sheep and goats, and they are famed for their quaint and beautiful blankets and homespun, which they weave on their hand looms from the wool of their sheep. They owned large herds of horses, beautiful ponies, a crossed breed of mustangs and Mormon stock, which latter they had stolen in their raids on the Mormon settlements in Utah. As saddle horses, these ponies are unexcelled for endurance under rough service.

Mentally the Navajo is very wide awake and capable of shrewd practices, as shown by the following incident, which happened to my personal knowledge.

A tall, gaudily appareled Indian, mounting a beautiful pony, came to town and offered for sale at our store several gold nuggets the size of hazelnuts. He took care to do this publicly, so as to attract the attention of some Mexicans, who became immensely excited at the sight of the gold and began to question him at once in order to ascertain how and whence he had obtained the golden nuggets. They almost fought for the privilege of taking him as an honored guest to their respective homes. The Indian was very non-committal as regarded his gold mine, but very willing to accept the sumptuous hospitality so freely rendered him. He was soon passed on from one disappointed Mexican to another, who in turn fared no better and invariably sped the parting guest to the door of his nearest neighbor. When the Indian had made the circuit of the town in this manner he looked very sleek and happy, indeed, but the people were no wiser. The knowledge of having been shamefully buncoed by an Indian and disappointed in their lust for gold made the Mexicans desperate. They held an indignation meeting and resolved to capture the wily Navajo and compel him, under torture, if necessary, to divulge the secret of his gold mine. Consequently, they overcame the Indian, and when they threatened him with torture and death, he yielded and said that he had found the gold in the Rio de San Francisco, a mountain stream of Arizona. He promised to guide them to the spot where he obtained the nuggets, saying that the bottom of the stream was literally covered with golden sand, which might be seen from a distance, as it shone resplendently in the sun. Then every able-bodied Mexican in town who possessed a horse prepared to join a prospecting expedition to the wild regions of mysterious Arizona. They organized a company and elected a captain, a man of courage and experience. The captain’s first official act was to place a guard of four armed men over the Navajo to prevent his escape, otherwise they treated their prisoner well.

The women of the town cooked and baked for the party, and undoubtedly each lady reveled in the hope to see her own man return with a sackful of gold; and as a result of these fanciful expectations they were in the best of spirits, laughing and singing the livelong day.

At last the party was off, and what happened to them I shall relate, as told me by the captain, Don Jose Marie Baca y Artiaga, and in his own words as nearly as I can remember them. “Valga me, Dios, Senor! What an experience was that trip to Arizona! It began and ended with disappointment and disaster. All the men of our party seemed to have lost their wits from the greed of gold. They began by hurrying. Those who had the best mounts rushed on ahead, carrying the Indian along with them, and strove to leave their companions who were not so well mounted behind. The first night’s camp had of necessity to be made at a point on the Rio Puerco, distant about thirty-five miles. As the last men rode into camp, the first comers were already making ready to leave again. In vain I remonstrated and commanded. There was a fight, and not until several men were seriously wounded came they to their senses and obeyed my orders. I threatened to leave them and return home, for I knew very well that unless our party kept together we were sure to be ambushed and attacked. I cautioned my companions as they valued their lives to watch the Navajo and shoot him on the spot at the first sign of treachery. This devil of an Indian led us over terrible trails, across the roughest and highest peaks and the deepest canyons of a wild, broken country. He seemed to be on the lookout ever for an opportunity to escape, but I did not give him the chance. Our horses suffered and were well-nigh exhausted when we finally sighted the coveted stream from a spur of the Mogollon range which we were then descending. The stream glistened and shone like gold in the distance, under the hot rays of a noonday sun and my companions would have made a dash for the coveted goal if their horses had not been utterly exhausted and footsore. As it was, I had the greatest trouble to calm them. Arriving at the last and steepest declivity of the trail, I succeeded in halting the party long enough to listen to my words. ‘Companions,’ I said, ’hear me before you rush on! I shall stay here with this Indian, whom you will first tie to this mesquite tree. Now you may go, and may the saints deliver you from your evil passion and folly. Mind you, senores, I claim an equal share with you in whatever gold you may find. If any one objects, let him come forth and say so now, man to man. I shall hold the trail for those among you who would haply choose to return. Forsooth, companions, I like not the actions of this Indian. Beware the Apache, senores; remember we are in the Tonto’s own country!’

“From my position I witnessed the exciting race to the banks of the stream, and saw plainly how eagerly my companions worked with pick and pan. Hard they worked, but not long, for soon they assembled in the shade of a tree, and after a conference I saw them make the usual preparations for camping. Several men looked after the wants of the horses, others built fires, and four of the party returned toward me. ‘What luck, Companeros!’ I hailed them when they came within hearing distance. ‘Senor Capitan, we have come for the Indian,’ said the spokesman of the squad. ‘And what use have you for the Indian?’ I asked. ‘We shall hang him to yonder tree,’ they said, ’as a warning to liars and impostors.’ Bueno, Caballeros, he deserves it. I deliver him into your hands under this condition, that you grant him a fair trial, as becomes men who being good Catholics and sure of the salvation of their souls may not, without just cause, consign a heathen to the everlasting fires of perdition.’

“Silently, stoically, the Indian suffered himself to be led to the place of his execution. After the enraged Mexicans had placed him under a tree with the noose of a riata around his neck, they informed him that he might now plead in the defense of his life if he had anything to say. ‘Mexicans,’ said the Navajo, ’I fear not death! If I must die, let it be by a bullet. I call the great Spirit, who knows the hearts of his people, to witness that I beg not for my life. I have not a split tongue nor am I an impostor. I have guided you to the place of gold. I have kept my promise. You Mexicans came with evil hearts. You fought your own brothers. You abandoned your sick companions on the trail to the coyote. You have broken the law of hospitality toward me, your guest, as no Spaniard has ever done before. Therefore, has your God punished you. He has changed the good gold of these waters to shimmering mica and shining dross. Fool gold He gives to fools! As you serve me now, so shall the Apaches do to you. Never more shall you taste of the waters of the Rio Grande, so says the Spirit in my heart!’

“The Indian’s dignified bearing and his inspired words on the threshold of eternity moved my conscience and caused a feeling of respect and pity for him in my breast as well as in others of our party. When Juan de Dios Carasco, who was known and despised by all for being a good-for-nothing thieving coward, drew his gun to shoot the Navajo in the back, I could not control my anger. ‘Stop,’ I shouted, ’you miserable hen thief, or you die at my hands, and now. This Indian should die, but not in such a manner. Senores, you have made me your capitan. Now I shall enforce my orders at the risk of my life’s blood. Give that Indian a knife and fair play in a combat against the prowess of the valiant Don Juan de Dios Carasco.’

“Although greatly disconcerted, Juan de Dios had to toe the mark. There was no alternative for him now, as I was desperate and my orders were obeyed to the letter, for death was the penalty for disobedience. The fight between the Mexican and the Indian ended by the Navajo, who was sorely wounded, throwing his knife into the heart of his enemy. It was a fair fight, although we accorded Juan de Dios, he being a Christian, this advantage against the Indian (who was better skilled in the use of weapons) that we allowed him to wrap his coat about his left arm as a shield, while the Indian was stripped to his patarague, or breechclout. We buried the body and allowed the Indian to shift for himself. I observed him crawling near the water’s edge in quest of herbs, which he masticated and applied to his wounds with an outer coating of mud from the banks of the stream. During the following night he disappeared. I suspect that the golden nuggets which caused all our troubles were taken from the body of a prospector who had been murdered in the lonesome mountains of Arizona.

“We allowed our horses several days’ rest to recuperate before starting on our return trip. You saw, senor, how we arrived. Starved, sore, and discouraged, we straggled home, jeered at and ridiculed by wiseacres who are always ready to say, ‘I told you so!’ and by enemies who had no liking for us. But the women, may Santa Barbara keep them virtuous! they who loved their husbands truly rejoiced to welcome us home, although we failed to bring them chispas de oro.

“As concerns the wife of Juan de Dios, and who was now his widow, pobrecita, she was not to be found at her home. She had taken advantage of her man’s absence to decamp to the mountain of Manzana with a strapping goat-herder, a very worthy young man, whom she loved and is now happily free to marry.”