vi. Zalan Discovers the White Men

It was the usual trio: Zalan, Rishuc, and Yok-en, the youngest of the three, catching grasshoppers in an open meadow. They were surrounded by yukis (coast live oak) whose sinuous branches shook with the racing evening wind, which poured over the hillside with its white fingers of fog. The grasshoppers were easy prey, if one worked together to entrap them. The uuruwa made such a tasty snack when roasted on the coals—a good source of protein for growing children, who joyfully encircled them and forced them to jump into their baskets. The trick was not to let them all escape when one opened the top of the basket to let more in. As the boys filled baskets with disoriented grasshoppers, a muffled grunt was heard from behind some rustling manzanita bushes.   Whatever it is, it isn’t afraid to show itself, which was enough to cause alarm—after all, bears and wolves and cougars often feasted on the young, and many stories were told of little ones who wondered off only to walk into the jaws of some mountain beast.

“Did you hear that?” asked Zalan.

“Yes. something is there. Behind those brambles. Is it an animal?” asked Rishuc. But the leaves and branches shuffled around causing all three to stop their activities and pay close attention. “Maybe it is a young bear.”

Then the noise grew louder, more acute, and to the great surprise of the young Achistacas , a strange beast emerged out from behind the blackberry bush, and looked at them with a pleading gaze. Its snout was long and melancholic, and it lacked antlers.

“O, por Dios, I’m lost!” it he-hawed.. “I have to return back to my convoy!” This fascinating creature stood on all fours, and had giant eyes and nostrils surrounded with white fur, and beautiful eyelashes which batted like worried butterflies in what was left of the sunlight.

“Who are you?” Zalan curiously inquired .

“Me? Oh my little friends, you can talk! Cielos! My name is Beatriz The Mule. Please don’t hurt me,” she pleaded as she staggered out of the bushes and out into the meadow. “Would you boys know if there are there any bears around?”

Beatriz was struggling to stand, and upon her back were sacks and boxes, tied around her body with hemp rope. Her load towered above her own head, and seemed about to topple. From her neck hung a rawhide fastening, which dragged between her hooves. Zalan and the two other  boys slowly stepped forward to get a closer look at this bizarre creature that stood before them.

“Mule…is that a kind of elk?” asked Rishuc.

“Heavens no! We mulas are, certainly not deer…We’re descendants of two great, hardworking creatures, Horse and Donkey, although I don’t want to get into that with you boys.”

“Are you lost?” asked Yok-en, “Have you lost your friends?”

Beatriz was in no mood to discuss these matters with children, preferring someone with more authority, but her predicament offered no choice. “Please help me. I’m just a pack mule who humbly serves the King of Spain. I need help to get back to my caravan. Thirsty and tired I became with such a burdensome load that I must bear, so I fell behind the others. Is there any chance you have seen them?

“What’s a king of spain?” asked Zalan.

Beatriz, raised up her weary neck and proclaimed, “El rey de España? His Majesty Carlos III, Lord and Bourbon Sovereign of these lands! You mean you boys have never heard of your own king?”

“Is he your father?” asked Rishuc suspiciously.

“My father! No, you little infidels. But come to think of it in away he is like a father for us all, since he protects us and governs in Gods’ stead. He is like God’s lieutenant, all-mighty and always right.” observed Beatriz, who wore a raggedy old bonnet.

What’s a lieutenant?” they asked

Frustrated with the questioning Beatriz spat out, “Santísima! Never mind all that. I don’t have much time. The soldados must be so worried. Did you see any men come through here looking for me?” she asked of the boys.

“We haven’t seen anyone, except you and these grasshoppers,” replied Zalan and then remembering his manners asked, “would you like some  grasshoppers?”

“Of course not.  I am a Mule, not a Frog.  Dios me valga!, I have to find them, I’m carrying the maps and personal provisions of the Captain. The trouble is, I don’t even know if I’m on the right trail.” Her neck turned and contorted itself as she looked from side to side.

The  boys, feeling unthreatened by Beatriz, inched closer and began to encircle her, their curiosity leading them forward, except for Rishuc, who held back, unsure if he should say something to stop the other too, or to watch at a safer distance.  On her back were sacks of the strangest weave. There were also rolled up canvases and boxes, which precariously hung on around her topsides. Beatriz tried to retreat, but her legs rattled and seemed about to buckle.

“Lets help her out. Let’s untie her.” Said Yok-en who had never seen animals carrying anything except their own fleas before.

“No, No! You mustn’t! I have to deliver these provisions to the captain,” she said excitedly.

“Maybe we should listen to her,” suggested Rishuc.

“But she is about to fall over and get crushed by her load. Yok-en is right, Let’s get that off of her.”  So Beatriz turned her body, but began to lose her balance. She felt so helpless as the boys untied her packages to relieve her strain. So unappreciative she seemed to them, yelling and screaming for them to stop, in the name of this or that. The knots were strong and foreign, but using a wooden wedge as a tool, the rope loosened and the luggage toppled to the ground in a great bang. Beatriz let out one final squeal, then began to sob.

“Oh I need to find their trail! Maldita sea mi bruteza! I cannot fail.” And she continued to sob.  Then, she backed away, wiped off her tears she stumbled away down away from the meadows and towards the creek yelling. “I’m coming Captain! your Beatriz is coming! Don’t leave me here amongst the savages!”

Zalan, Yok-en and Rishuc stared at each other, then at the luggage left by Beatriz on the floor, then back at each other again.

“Bring me that rock,” said Zalan, and with the other boys, they removed a large black stone that covered a giant ant colony. All together they raised it above one of the wooden chests that had tumbled off Beatriz’ back, and let if fall with a punishing thud. The chest splintered in three main parts, although metal framing and hinges had tightly held it together.  The boys looked with amazement at the surprises inside the wooden chest. Scissors, a bottle of ointment, shiny and blue; a beautifully worked shiny silver-handled knife with three carved symbols: the F and the M; a bundled silk handkerchief that held three silver alloy bullets, that the captain was reserving for any demons he might encounter. Another small wooden box carved with royal insignia lay opened, exposing various metallic tools. Zalan and the boys picked through the items with apprehension, feeling the cold of the metal between the fingers.

“We shouldn’t touch these things,” said Rishuc.

“Why not?” asked Yok-en.

“What if they have a curse, and you turn into one of those mules?”

This made Yok-en and Zalan a little more unsure about their discovery, and they looked at their hands to see if anything had changed.

“I don’t think they are cursed,” said Yok-en, and he began to swing the blade around, poking it into trees and into the earth.

“Careful!” yelled Zalan. “Wait, do you hear something?”

Out of the shadows, in a direction completely opposite to Beatriz’ came two men riding comfortably atop two other so-called mules. These mules were heftier with a longer neck, and carried angry gazes. They stopped, stared at the boys who were also frozen amidst the Captain’s scattered things.

“Run!” yelled Risuc.

Screaming, the boys ran in opposite directions not seeing where the other ones went. Zalan made it up into a tree, and from a perch watched the unfolding actions of the two  outsiders. The two men raced towards the broken crate and the sacks opened and emptied of their goods. “Shit!” they yelled.

They  dismounted their animals and stared incredulously at the mess of broken boxes and scattered goods that lay before them. These men, which resembled the ones from his terrifying dreams, must be the ones much talked about in the village of late. Zalan held his breath lest they should smell him. Fear was enveloping his young body, and his heart was beating right out of his ribs. But he dared not to move.

“We know you are out there little rodents!” yelled one of them. And in frustration one soldier took his rifle out of its saddle-mounted holster and fired into the bushes scaring off a tree-full of crows who had gathered to gawk and gossip. The blast sounded clear and imposing as thunder, and it rattled the bones of all the boys in their respected hiding places. “If anything is missing, you will pay with your little Indian hides!” he clamored helplessly, knowing that it would be hard to track them down if they had escaped.

Both soldiers looked haggard and beaten, and covered in sweat. Their faces dirtied from a long day’s campaign through marshlands and wild terrain. They knew that Captain Felipe Malpaso would be furious if he knew that his personal belongings had been opened and dispersed like rubbish. Would he believe that a bunch of young inditos were responsible for the mess. He would count everything three times as he always did to make sure everything was in its rightful place. God forbid if even a single map was missing. Each and any loss would be assumed a theft on their part and would be subtracted twice over from their yearly sum, and they would spend until Christmas tied to a post. Had they not been entrusted to watch over his very own personal mule, and shall we add, his most intimate confidant, the ever-loyal Beatriz, and treat her as if it was their own mother? And with everything strewn about so carelessly, how would they even know if they had everything?

“Where did that fucking Beatriz go?” barked the shorter of the two men.

“I told you Lucas, I don’t know. Maybe the Indians got to her and are making a feast of her. She’s probably being slaughtered and quartered as we speak, that bitch. Serves her right for getting lost.”

“We better find her too. If not you know what will happen to us.” Their accent was not from the Peninsula, and it was mixed with the idioms and inflections that circulated around New Spain at the time. These young specimens were recent recruits, on their first expedition to the hinterlands, fresh off the boat from Loreto. Both could easily count the whiskers on their young faces with all twenty digits.

Zalan, understanding nothing but grunts and the occasional–No!–interpreted very well what was going on. Seeing the two men dressed in hides and with round, curious hats upon their heads working feverishly to get the pack in order, he figured they were very interested in collecting all that he, Rishuc and Yok-en had disturbed. That strange fire-spitting instrument (that had made such a nasty interruption) patiently leaned against a rock, while the men put everything back its appropriate boxes and saddlebag, so that they could then mount it on their horses.

“Lucas…Lucas…look at this,” said the shorter one again.

“What is it Cleto?” As he looked over, he let out a loud shriek “Hijo’eputa, No!” It was the leather guard that held the Captain’s prized silver shaving knife, but it was missing its distinguished blade.  They struggled to find it amongst the tall grasses and the thankful crickets who were finally given rest. Zalan watched them argue amongst themselves, pointing fingers and waving their hands about as they blabbered the most incomprehensible sounds.  But, what of his young partners-in-crime? Where they hiding nearby, or had they gotten chance to escape out of there down to the lowlands, as he should have done. Where had Rishuc gone, and Yok-en? Zalan  figured the men on the large mules would stop at nothing before collecting everything that had fallen out of those packs.  Their tone and demeanor did not carry the air of those inclined to gift-giving, customary of those who travel through foreign lands.

“Those little shits, they’re probably hiding around here somewhere, with that fucking knife. Looks like where going to have to get our hands dirty again. Cleto, get your saber.” Looking around, up and down, they moved away from their locus in opposite directions.

“Come out! Return what you’ve taken, you rotten thieves! You have stolen from the Captain, Captain Felipe Malpaso, which carries a penalty of…of…death by sabre. And many years service at the Presidio!” yelled Cleto towards the tangled oaks and darkened corners of the surrounding forest.

“Don’t be an idiot.” chastised Lucas, “They can’t understand a damn thing you say. We must be smarter than them. If we’re lucky, they can lead us back to their rancheria, which will greatly please the Captain.”

“But what if we can’t find it, I mean, we can’t even find that lazy mule, how are we going to track down those thieves. What if it’s a lost cause, what then?” whispered Cleto in premature resignation.

“Just follow my lead, and don’t get any ideas,” said Lucas trying to take the more heroic stance. “We’re going to find it, because if we don’t I will make you my very own personal pack Mule. That means we are going to track down that razor, even if we have to cut off every hand in this region to find the culprits.[1]

The blade carried special significance to the captain as it was presented to him by the Viceroy himself. It was engraved and encased in leather sleeve, and given to him on the very day he was chosen to lead the California expedition to reconnoiter; to be the Kings eyes and ears, but also to shine the light, however briefly, on those naked and wretched beings, as they saw them, that so inconveniently inhabited it. In short, to give them a taste of what’s-to-come.

“Maybe we should just make for the south, the both of us, on our own, back to Loreto,” suggested Cleto, looking at the mess in front of them.

“You mean desert? You want us to walk away from the bloody caravan, the only thing that separates us from death and starvation? How long do you think we would last out here? We don’t even have an interpreter to guide us back. What’s more, were sure to run in to other soldiers down in San Diego, San Gabriel and such, if we’re lucky to even make it that far. You are out of your mind.”

“But look, here are all the maps, or most of them I think. We can fish all we want and trade these things Beatriz left behind for food. Even these Indians understand a good trade out here,” insisted Cleto.

“What good are those maps, you imbecile? You can’t even read your own name. Go ahead, desert. At least then I can say to the captain that it was you who looted his mule and butchered it for meat. Ha! He’ll probably send me to chase you down,” said Lucas with a wolf-like grin.

Then without announcing his intentions, Lucas made a sudden dash towards the edge of the meadow, and caught a little arm dangling down from a fat old oak branch rising about 4 varas off the ground. This tree had been surprisingly close all along and Lucas had caught a glimpse of a metallic reflection and knew immediately what it was. The thief was discoverd. It was Yok-en’s left arm which had betrayed him, but it was his right that now found itself under the soldiers’ deathly grasp.

“Aha, I’ve caught you, little piece of rabbit dung. Cleto! Quick. Bring your saber here and slice this miniature thief down the middle when I yank him down!” Knowing the silver blade Yoken tightly gripped was as sharp as the Devils tongue, Lucas was reluctant to seize it from the boy’s outright. Instead, he tugged at him trying to bring him down off the branch.

Zalan from the opposite side watched helplessly as the scene unfolded. ‘Throw it down, Yok-en!’ he wanted to yell, but that would have given away his position. However Yok-en, a boy with nerves of steel, gripped the tree with one arm and the knife with the other, and plunged it into Lucas’ dirty hand, cutting effortlessly through the palm, and thereby dropping the briefly fearsome infantryman into a pool of cries and bloody sobs. Yok-en, needing no more encouragement, jumped downward landing on Cleto’s head knocking him chin first into the earth. In less than 3 seconds Yok-en’s figure disappeared into the verdure.  Cleto, panicked and thinking himself surrounded by an army of Indian warriors, cowered below with his downed partner Lucas, seeking protection from the wounded man.

“What are you doing, let’s go get him!” Grunted Lucas finally on his feet, and he ripped at the sleeve of Cleto’s tattered shirt, obtaining for himself a crude bandage that he wrapped and tightened around his trembling hand. “Mireda! it hurts.”

Suddenly a loud cry was heard from the left, which forced the frightened Zalan to freeze in his descent. It was the captain himself, who had tired of waiting and had set off with a small detachment of his best men to track down the mule, his dim-witted scouts, and his personal effects.

“Soldado Lucas! Soldado Cleto! Show your ugly coward selves!”  yelled Captain Malpaso  from deep down the gut, as only a captain can.

But in a moment of thoughtless desperation, the two men looked at each other in panic, and began digging a hole with their own two hands like a couple sand dune spiders. They quickly jumped in, plummeting down a subterranean chute, so they say, and left these lands forever. Nobody ever knew where.

Apparently Beatriz had successfully tracked down the caravan, joined her compatriots, and led them back to the spot where she had lost her load. The captain, a choleric man of few friends, dismounted and strode over to view the mess.  He wore a blue petticoat, collared and cuffed in Bourbon red, with gold-braided epaulets to distinguish his diminutive frame from the other soldiers of the expedition. Over this he wore a long leather vest, made to withstand any arrows that were not fired at point blank range, the distinguishing garbs of a soldado de cuera. He was followed by a small contingent of soldiers.

The Captain grinding his teeth as he sifted though his equipment that lay violated and exposed.

“Find me that Lucas and that idiot Cleto! Bring them back here tied up like Indians. They can’t be far.”  He yelled looking at nobody in particular. Three soldados de cuera took off in various directions, one running directly under Zalan’s precarious position halfway down the oak, but noticing nothing. Captain Malpaso vociferated wildly at all those around. He tossed his arms around and stomped on the articles that had lost their value, the broken glass, the spilled cans of powder, all useless to him. And his precious knife!

The captain and his crew dedicated the rest of the evening to salvaging the rest of what they could, putting it all back into crude sacks. Tired, and with no sign of anyone, they decided to pitch camp, but not after the captain, and a strange tall man, dressed in a gray hooded robe took some measurements with a curious little instrument. Captain Felix Malpaso did nothing else the rest of the evening, but tug at his unshaven beard, and pace back and forth, dreaming of exquisite tortures to subject the culprits, be they Indian or gente de razón[2], or something in-between.

Zalan never told anyone about this meeting, and Rishuc swore to do the same. For both the memory would remain with them until the very end. Yok-en, never came home. Not that night, nor ever.  Fearing they would somehow be blamed for it, Zalan and Rishuc blamed his disappearance on a bobcat attack, that although they did not see it, they claimed that they had been stalked by one on their way back from the meadow. His carcass was searched for and never found.

[1] Lucas is most likely referring to the tactics employed by many conquistadores including Hernan Cortez and Cristofero Colombo, who was the first European practitioner of hand mutilation in the Americas.


[2] People of reason, gente de razón. This term was meant to include anyone who was Hispanized, or no longer Indian in culture at least. It is hard to say how many people simply called themselves de razon only to raise their status artificially.  Reason could be acquired, but only when savagery was abandoned, they thought.


~ by Francisco Nieto on August 6, 2009.

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