Western Writers of America

Fredrick W. Boling -- Writing Western

Author of novels, short stories and articles about America's Frontier

Cattle Wars, Rustlers, Cattle Barons

Frontier Medicine
Prologue--No Lesser Measure
Our Western Heritage
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Demons of Coyote Wash
Writing a Balanced Story
Oklahoma Roots

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Published in 1999 by ReadWest Online Magazine.

 

    Gustaf eyed the rattler as it slithered behind a sack of flour. He hated snakes, especially rattlesnakes, ever since he escaped to the desert country. It wasn't unusual for rattlesnakes to invade the one-roomed shack he built out of adobe bricks beside Coyote Wash south of the Gila River in Arizona Territory. Snakes, scorpions, and lizards were but a few of the critters that preferred Gustaf's abode to the searing noonday heat that baked the desert each and every day. But he hated snakes more than the rest.

     He pulled the cork from a nearly empty bottle of tequila with his teeth and filled a cup after tossing coffee dregs onto the earthen floor. It had been two years since Juanita left. Two years of trying to forget her nagging chatter that would drive any man to the brink of insanity. She was a shrew, no doubt about it. But, still, a shrew was better than the emptiness of this barren desert place whose sole occupants were two goats; Gustaf's burro, Geraldine, and critters that burrowed into the desert sands.

     His right leg began to throb as he gulped half the tequila from a cup gone unwashed for weeks. The fiery agave spirits were all he had to quell the terrible pain of the creeping blackness ascending his leg. The sickness nearly reached his knee only one day after the snake's fangs slammed into his ankle. "Juanita," he called, forgetting that only her memory remained. "More tequila."

    Gustaf's sordid past crept from his subconscious as he writhed in agony. Kaleidoscopic images swirled before his eyes. There were taunting likenesses of his parents, Leif and Greta Jorgensen, who pleaded for him not to emigrate from Norway to America. Then he clasped his hands over both ears to muffle the roar of an irate mob of gold miners bent upon hanging him. A ghostlike figure of the miner he murdered during a claim dispute along the American River in 1849 charged through the doorway. Gustaf cringed as the ghost pulled a switchblade knife from his pocket, flipped it open and lunged toward him. In an instant, Gustaf saw himself plundering and robbing sojourners along the Gila River Trail in the desert country of Arizona Territory. The likeness of border-gang outlaw Diablo Blanca kicked open the door, swaggered in and held up a bottle of Tequila. "Compadre, let's ride. There are many gringos we can rob." Gustaf reached for the Tequila, but Blanca vanished.

     Gustaf ran gnarled fingers through his once white hair and beard, now matted and dingy from going unwashed for months. His clothing was tattered and unkempt from neglect and usage. The desert sun and too many years of drinking tequila tanned and wrinkled his face into a shriveled mask. He was a foul man with few attributes.

     His eyes roved about the shack, looking for the petite dark-skinned girl that he bought from Senor Diablo Blanca and his outlaw band that raided along both sides of the Mexican border. Only desert silence filled the shack. "Where is that wench," he muttered and finished off the tequila.

     Gustaf sat in the growing darkness as the evening sun sank beyond the ocher ridges of the Gila range of mountains. His right leg, nearly twice its normal size, filled the cabin with a putrid stench. The tequila and toxins from his gangrenous limb began to sully his mind with hallucinations and delusions. His eyes followed fleeting visions of rattlesnakes, some large and others small, as they slithered and coiled like dancing ballerinas across the floor. He recoiled in terror as bared fangs of each phantom reptile struck at his rotting leg.

     His screams awakened him from tormenting dreams. "Juanita," he called, his voice now weaker and less demanding. "More tequila."

     As he lay in the darkened room, haunting memories cascaded into Gustaf's ravaged mind like sand swirling before hot desert winds. Ghosts of the past again paraded before his deluded eyes in a procession of accusing reminders. He had long been devoid of guilt or regret over misdeeds, many of which were malicious and wantonly committed. Many were waylaid travelers that he robbed where the Gila River Trail crossed the Colorado River. One of the travelers he murdered was a young fellow on his way to San Diego. Gustaf found a letter written in Spanish by Don Carlos de Vega in the young man's pocket. The script was difficult to read; however, he learned from it that his victim asked to marry Don Carlos's daughter, and Don Carlos had given his blessing to their union. No one ever discovered the young man's fate, which was erased by the desert and Gustaf's spade. Other victims followed, one by one, until the tormented face of Juanita crept into view like an apparition. "Aha," Gustaf muttered, pointing a gnarled finger at her ghostlike figure. "There you are, you wench. Bring me some more tequila."

     Juanita was only sixteen when Gustaf rode into the encampment of Senor Diablo Blanca south of the Mexican border. He learned that Blanca's outlaw band had killed her father and mother and taken her captive during a raid on their village. That day of his first seeing her came vividly to mind as Gustaf pondered Juanita's ghost-like appearance. The poverty of her tattered blue calico dress and unkempt grooming hadn't hidden her youthful beauty from his lusting eyes. After several hours of haggling, Diablo Blanca seemed reluctant to part with Juanita, but finally accepted a fifty-peso gold piece and a quart of tequila in exchange for the little beauty. At the time, Gustaf wondered why the old Mexican bandido was laughing and holding high the fifty-peso gold coin and bottle of tequila as Juanita slipped behind the cantle of Gustaf's saddle.

     Diablo's hilarity was later explained when Juanita's sharp tongue began to berate Gustaf with tirades of profane expletives. He responded with violence toward her which took many forms. Frequent beatings, vocal intimidation, a demand for slave-like obedience, and subtle degrading remarks were all used to keep her under his control. But her outbursts and his beatings never ceased until she disappeared one night while Gustaf lay on his cot in a drunken stupor.

     "Damned wench," he said, trying to get up from his creaking old cot. "I'll get my own tequila."

     He fell to the earthen floor, writhing from the agony that ripped into his leg. After a while the hard floor, grown cold from the cloudless desert night, began to ease some of the pain. As he lay searching the darkness for Juanita, Gustaf whimpered, "Please, Juanita, bring me some tequila. Your Gustaf will buy you a new dress."

     "You are lying, old gringo," Juanita hissed.

     "No! No!" Gustaf said, peering into the darkness at her ghostly appearance. "My leg---the rattler, he bit me."

     "What difference does it make?" she chortled. "You are dying, old gringo."

     "No, get me some tequila, then go fetch Geraldine."

     "Geraldine?"

     "I must go see Coyote Man. He'll cure my leg."

     "Coyote Man? He is loco. Why don't you die here?"

     "You wench," Gustaf said, lurching upright. "You do as I say or I'll . . ."

     "What? What will you do to me?" she said, moving closer to his flailing fists.

     "Aaaarrrhh!" he growled and lunged toward the wispy phantom. His hands grabbed for her face, but she dissolved like smoke in the wind. He sprawled to the floor, spent and frustrated by his delusions.

     The pain ravaging his leg, and venom pillaging his brain, sent him into fits of seizure-like contortions. Through the fog creeping over him, Gustaf suddenly experienced a lucid moment. He realized he was alone and going to die if something wasn't done to halt the effects of the snake's bite. As he contemplated what he must do, he listened to wind buffeting the shack's tin roof. He had to get to Coyote Man's lodge.

     Coyote Man claimed to be a Hohokam medicine man -- the last survivor of that ancient desert tribe. According to him, he descended from one of its families that was captured and enslaved by the Anasazi who were ancestors of the Navajo and Hopi tribes. By the time Columbus embarked from Spain, the Hohokam people disappeared. Only the descendants of those that were enslaved by the Anasazi had survived. One of Coyote Man's ancestors led his people out of captivity when the Anasazi abandoned their Mesa Verde pueblo and moved to the Rio Grande Valley. The Hohokam remnant returned to the desert country along the Gila River, but their numbers gradually diminished until only Coyote Man survived.

     Coyote Man was a loner. He was proud and aloof, but freely gave aid to anyone who came to him in need. Besides spiritual incantations, he used peyote buttons and other desert herbs, which he carried in a leather pouch slung over his shoulder, to treat his patients. Being short but muscled like a wrestler made him appear to be much younger than what he claimed. His hazel eyes, piercing as a weasel's, peered from features that were bronzed and creased from age and the sun. Straight gray hair fell across his shoulders down to his waist. His attire was that of a Mexican campesino, drab white shirt and pants, leather-thonged sandals and wide-brimmed straw sombrero.

     After ingesting peyote, he would sit for hours in a trance-like state contemplating a kaleidoscope of visions and hallucinations. From these experiences, Coyote Man formulated his own methods of curing anyone who brought their illnesses or injuries to him.

     Grimacing from the pain, Gustaf crawled toward the cupboard. His agony demanded more tequila to sustain him during the jolting journey astride Geraldine. He groped in the darkness for the handle to the cupboard's potato bin where he stashed his last quart of tequila. He gulped several swallows from the bottle after retrieving it from among shriveled potatoes that were beginning to rot. He lay on the floor and prayed to the Blessed Virgin that his agony would soon abate enough for him to stand and hobble outside to where Geraldine was tethered. His vigil consumed the better part of an hour and most of the tequila before he tried to stand up.

     In his effort to stand, he grasped the cupboard's countertop and pulled himself upward until he managed to balance on his good leg. The pain was gone, but so was his equilibrium. The tequila sent his head to spinning like a whirling dust devil. He finally gathered enough senses to turn loose of the countertop and lunge toward the open door. He fell headlong through the doorway, sprawling spread-eagled into a patch of hedgehog cacti. Hundreds of their prickly spines pierced and embedded themselves into his torso and limbs.

     Oblivious to the barbs gouging his flesh, Gustaf rolled free of the cacti and crawled toward Geraldine while clutching the nearly empty tequila bottle. He untied the little burro's halter and pulled himself across her small but sturdy back.

     Now calmness engulfed him as his mind returned to days gone by. He was standing beside the stone-walled railing of a bridge that spanned a narrow cove of one of the many fjords in western Norway. The night sky danced; scintillating with leaping shafts of light, some silver, some green, others of blended spectrums of color. As he watched the brilliant display, he pondered its meaning. Oh, yes, he knew that these lights were the aurora borealis, and they were common in northern Scandinavia. However, just what they were and what caused them was a different matter. Some said they were the workings of "under-beings" living beneath the ground. Trolls, some benevolent but others demonic, were what they called them.

     He believed in trolls. He'd seen them several times in Norway, also along the South Fork of the American River in California and here in the Arizona desert. They were either giants or dwarfs; none being normal in height or appearance. He'd never met a good troll. The ones he encountered were demons that would vent their venom of evil like spitting vipers. He was certain the demons of Coyote Wash could, at will, become snakes, lizards, and scorpions whenever they wished.

     The burro followed the trail from Gustaf's shack along Coyote Wash toward the Gila River for nearly an hour when she suddenly stopped. "Get goin'," he yelled, rousing from his drunken musings, but Geraldine refused to take another step.

     Gustaf slapped the burro on the rump several times. "I said, get goin' you dunderhead."

     She refused to obey. Gustaf heard a commotion coming from the direction of the Gila River. Dawn was beginning to blanch the night sky above the eastern horizon. He peered toward the sounds, trying to make out what was happening, but could see nothing out of the way. He wagged his head to clear the tequila fog from his brain and tried to listen more intently. "Drums," he muttered. "Who'd be beatin' drums out here?"

     The pulsating cadence waxed and waned in the early-morning desert air for several more minutes, and then without any more encouragement from Gustaf, Geraldine decided to go on. Gustaf gulped the rest of the tequila to chase away the pain that was returning and to brace himself for whatever was up ahead. He felt a glimmer of hope as he pondered his perilous predicament. Maybe, just maybe, the drummer would be willing to help him. It was worth a try.

     As Geraldine carried Gustaf nearer the Gila River, a chanting voice joined the beating drums. "That's Injun," Gustaf said and slapped Geraldine on the rump. "Get goin', got t'be Coyote Man."

     By the time Geraldine reached the riverbank, Gustaf's slapping hand had her trotting at a quick pace. He could feel the resurgence of hope as he anticipated meeting the old medicine man who cured him of several snakebites in the past. "Coyote Man," he yelled.

     Geraldine's hoofs scattered river stones as she trotted down the trail toward a tipi standing beside a nearly dry Gila riverbed. The tipi's sun-bleached covering of tanned goatskins stood silhouetted against the morning sun rimming the eastern horizon. The desert was taking on pastels of dawn as the light of day began to spill across the arid plain. It was a time of day when Gustaf enjoyed being sober, but that was seldom since Juanita left. Gone was his awareness of sights, sounds, and aromas that the awakening desert emitted with the breaking of each morning, but today was different. Everything seemed fresh, like the first moments of a new experience: the taste of salt in the air on his first voyage aboard his father's fishing boat; the flashing flecks of gold in the bottom of his pan as he squatted beside the American River; the lonely wail of a coyote during his first night in the desert. All of these awakened his memory of sober days when life was good. And then the depressing cloud of reality settled upon him. For the first time since he plunged his knife into the belly of that fellow miner, Gustaf felt the pangs of regret.

     As Geraldine trotted into the encampment, Gustaf realized the beating drum and chanting song had ceased. Then he spied a man sitting in front of a burned out firepit beyond the tipi. "Coyote Man," Gustaf called and slapped Geraldine's rump.

     The man didn't move or speak. Gustaf slipped from the burro and grasped the man by the shoulder. "Coyote Man! It's me, Gustaf."

     Coyote Man fell backward and lay facing the sky with sightless eyes staring at nothing. "Wake up!," Gustaf said as he slumped down beside the old Indian. "Damned peyote. I been snake bit. Y’gotta help me."

     Coyote Man didn't respond. Gustaf listened to the bared chest of the old medicine man, but could hear no sounds, no lub-dubbing heart, nothing. He slammed his fist, again and again, down upon the quiet chest of Coyote Man. Nothing happened. Gustaf's eyes then saw what had killed him. Coyote Man's right hand and arm were swollen and purple as a ripe plum. Bloody fluid was exuding from two fang wounds on his thumb. "How could y'have up and died? I just heard y'singin'."

     "You heard Coyote Man singing his death song, old gringo," Juanita said, stepping from Coyote Man's tipi.

     Gustaf turned to face her. Was she real or was this another hallucination? "Bring me some tequila, you wench," he demanded.

     The last thing Gustaf heard was the taunting cackle of Juanita as he collapsed, burying his face in the ashes of Coyote Man's firepit.


Copyright 1999 Fredrick W. Boling. All rights Reserved.