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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Water Basket

“Today’s Salton Sea was formed in 1905-07 when the Colorado River broke through irrigation floodgates near Yuma. Since then, Hoover Dam and other dams have supposedly tamed the rampages of the Southwest’s mightiest river. However, the ghosts of Lake Cahuilla and its ancestors born of the river still brood over the valley.”

Lowell and Diana Lindsay, “The Anza-Borrego

Desert Region. A Guide to the State Park and the Adjacent Areas,” Second Edition, 1985. Wilderness Press, Berkley, CA

Spring, 1907 — Barton Scott crawled on his belly up the sloped, windward side of the sand dune, his Winchester repeater wrapped in chamois and cradled in his elbows. Safe to say, this would be his best opportunity of the night. Low clouds offered little moonlight for visual tracking, let alone a clear, close shot from high ground.

At the crest, staring down the dune’s slip face, Barton recoiled as three inches of sand gave way beneath his fingertips. He held his breath as a small river of ancient rock and shell cascaded down thirty-five feet of sheer cliff and piled up twenty yards from the three Cahuilla Indians he had been tracking. He remembered the outrageous instructions he had received, first from his railroad supervisor, and then from the old man who never left his railcar, Mr. Barrington: “Find them and kill them, Scott.”

“I’m no killer.”

“You are now, son, or you can get on your horse and ride back to San Diego. And I’m not saying it that way to be the leather-necked prick I am reputed to be. I’m saying it because you, sir, are the only tracker we have left. If you can’t find these Indian medicine men, stop them from doing whatever it is they are doing, that damn Colorado River will flood one-sixth of California.”

“The railroad thinks the flood is shaman’s magic, do they?”

“How else would you explain what’s happened? Sudden flows and surges at precisely the wrong moment? Submerged tree trunks rising up from nowhere and dislodging the brand new gate? The Swede accidentally blowing himself up with the temporary dam? I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the three men we’ve lost looking for these Indians. In fact, Scott, it is hard to believe what’s happened here is not witchcraft in my fucking book. My wife’s Presbyterian preacher in Yuma says it’s The Devil himself.”

In the end, it was his friends and coworkers who’d convinced Barton Scott to try, not Barrington. All of their jobs were at stake, they told him, each and every man, some rather sternly. Safe to say, Barton would be jobless and headed back to San Diego one way or another if he didn’t track and stop these Indians.

Stretched out now in the cool sand, Barton carefully unwrapped his Winchester 1894, a gift from his father who’d traveled to the World’s Fair in Chicago, seen the new rifle introduced, and returned to their San Diego home with this lever-action repeater as a present for his oldest son.

Barton had watched these three Indians fill their woven basket with Colorado River water fourteen miles away, then drag the loaded basket on a crude sled through the sand. Where were they taking it? What would they do with a giant basket filled with Colorado River water? It was truly an amazement to Barton that woven sticks could even hold water. But how could their actions possibly have caused the project’s strange accidents? Magic, indeed.

Bloody foolish, is what this was.

He licked his finger to test the soft wind. Or perhaps he was stalling. He smiled at himself. Barton Scott was an English-borne horseman, not a cowboy; an educated surveyor, not a gunman; and a lover of nature, not a trained tracker. He’d been hired to help lay new railroad track after the flood, but the Colorado River had been flowing into the southern California desert for two and half years, and continued to do so. Nobody knew where it was safe to lay new track until the river stopped filling southern California’s Yuha desert.

He sighted his Winchester on the chief Indian, the one who never took his hands off the big basket. Such a reverent touch the silver-haired old gentleman kept on those woven sticks and grasses. As if he were holding his grandchild. And no easy target, either, sitting below the slip face under these clouds.

Spotting Barton, the chief jumped from his squat and hopped backward, providing Barton with a perfect target, not to mention a boost in his pulse. Hawk-eyed son-of-a-gun to spot him up here, the chief was. The two Indians at the chief’s side split off running in opposite directions along the bottom of the slipface. The long-trunked men sprinted across the sand like web-footed lizards.

Diversions. Barton stayed his sight on the chief, or at least the Indian who looked like a chief. Painted up with large Golden Eagle feathers on his clothes – a rare ornament on this desert band of Indians. At this range, no more than sixty feet, his Winchester’s .45 caliber rifle slug would punch a hole through that Indian bigger than a fist, but the proud old man didn’t seem to care much, standing there with his arms spread, murmuring a prayer.

Barton’s finger touched the cool trigger. Could this poor old Indian and his basket be responsible for the flood? Did he really deserve to die?

Hell no. He lowered the rifle and backed off the crest of the sand dune. Damned if he was going bushwhack three men because some crazy, New York-born railroad prince believed in magic. Why not just take the chief’s reported magic basket? Safe to say, that would put a crimp in their style. Maybe an end to this Indian foolishness.

Barton needed two minutes to work down and across the dune’s slack, find a place where he could operate on the same level as the sled and the giant woven basket. Trouble was, the chief Indian still guarded his midnight caravan, plus, both of his tough-looking pals had returned.

Barton lifted his Winchester. These men wouldn’t understand English, but his tone and rifle prop should help translate. “You boys ought to be leaving before I change my mind about shooting somebody.”

Nobody moved. And after four or five seconds, Barton decided these Indians wouldn’t respond any better to Spanish. Safe to say it was the gun that needed to speak. He fired a round through the chief Indian’s eagle feathers, the gold-tipped beauties fixed to the side of his head.

The round’s explosion disturbed the quiet night sufficiently, but all the hubbub faded too quickly into the sandy emptiness. Worse, none of the three Indians had blinked a bloody eyelash — even the chief who’d practically had his hair parted.

Tough sons-of-guns.

With a show, Barton chambered a new round in the Winchester, the clickity-clack of the big repeater’s lever-action ringing out like farm machinery in the returning stillness. Now what the hell was he going to do? If he wanted that basket, he was beginning to think that —

All three Indians yanked knives from their belts and ran at him — the action swift, fluid, and simultaneous, everything happening, everybody coming at once. They screamed at the peak of their voices, too — hair-raising yelps that chilled Barton’s skin and momentarily nailed his feet to the sand.

Adrenaline kicked his muscles and unfroze his feet. Barton hadn’t succeeded in this harsh southern California environment because he was easily frightened. His reaction was instinctive and quick. His steady hands fired, reloaded, and fired the Winchester again in rapid succession, with two of the charging Indians falling dead or wounded.

But the third, the chief with the eagle feathers, drove his shoulder low against Barton’s rifle barrel, then pushed his knife underneath Barton’s blocking hand. Barton caught the Indian’s wrist, but the knife blade pushed within an inch of Barton’s throat.

He had dropped his prized repeater to catch the chief’s wrist. Kill or be killed, the two men now wrestled and grunted in the sand. The son-of-a-gun Indian was strong, his muscles long and hard like wire. Barton needed both hands to keep the knife blade from slicing the side of his neck. The Indian smelled like a dead goat, too, so Barton snorted like a bull. You get in a barnyard brawl, Barton’s Daddy always told him, act like the biggest and meanest animal in the yard.

Barton rolled the chief onto his backside, the two of them locked together by arms, legs, and a desperate desire to survive. The Indian’s knife held steady within inches of Barton’s neck no matter where they rolled, or who was on top. Moonlight glinted in the Indian’s polished black-stone eyes. There were moments when Barton felt as if he wrestled with the Devil himself. Maybe Mrs. Barrington’s crazy old preacher in Yuma had been right.

The chief acquired the top position once more and screamed, higher pitched than previous, perhaps trying to sound like a demon. Maybe sensing Barton’s fear. But in that split-second the Indian slightly lifted his nose to howl, Barton wedged his left elbow onto his own breast bone, pushing up with his hand, freezing the Indian’s knife, locking it away from Barton’s throat.

And for the first time freeing Barton’s right hand.

The chief saw Barton’s hand move too late. Barton had already snatched his Remington two-shot pistol from inside his boot. As the Indian’s knife fell across Barton’s cheek, slicing the flesh, the Englishman’s .41 caliber Remington exploded. A teacup-size chunk of the Indian’s forehead disintegrated.

Blood splashed in Barton’s eyes.

He pushed the dead chief’s body off his chest, sat up and gasped for air. With each breath, the world felt fresher and newer to him. As if he were alive and breathing for the first time. As if Barton Scott had just been born.

As he washed himself with water from the huge basket, mixing some of the chief’s blood inside with his own, Barton shook his head. What a shame that three men should die over a collection of reeds and fibers.

He felt no better about his actions the following day, when much to Barton’s surprise, the flood was in fact contained by a newly built bridge and eighteen railroad cars loaded with rock and soil.

Coincidence, he said to his grateful boss and friends.