Killer of Witches

The Life and Times of Yellow Boy

"You are stronger than we. We have fought you so long as we had rifles and powder, but your arms are better than ours. Give us like weapons and turn us loose, we will fight you again; but we are worn-out; we have no more heart; we have no provisions, no means to live; your troops are everywhere; our springs and waterholes are either occupied or overlooked by your young men. You have driven us from our last and best stronghold, and we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are men and braves."

—Mescalero Chief Cadete to General Carlton, 1863

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At the time Cadete spoke his words to General Carlton, the Mescalero Apache, Yellow Boy, my mentor and close friend for over fifty-five years, was three years old. He saved me from certain death in the winter desert after the murder of my father, Albert, in 1896; helped me avenge Albert; and taught me to survive in the hard country of the southwest. In 1950 I persuaded him to tell me his life story. Over the course of many afternoons and pots of coffee, I wrote it down as he told it in a mixture of Mescalero Apache, Spanish, and English in the whispery rasping voice of a vigorous old man. At the beginning of each session I read back to him what I had written from the previous session, and after explaining the meaning of some of my fancy words, he usually agreed I had captured the essence of what he had said. When I missed what he meant, I rewrote until he said I had captured his meaning. This is his story as he told it and meant it to be heard..

–Dr. Henry Grace, 1953

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Chapter 1—Ish-kay-neh

Bosque Redondo, New Mexico Territory, October 30, 1865

My people were Mescalero Apaches, the Shish-Indeh, the People of the Woods. In the time when Indah Lickoyee, the White Eye outsiders, kept my people prisoners of war in Bosque Redondo, a chief called Cadete came to speak with my father. My life had not been long then, only five years, and my father still called me Ish-kay-neh (Boy), my true name not yet given.

The night Cadete spoke with Caballo Negro (Black Horse) by the little fire in our ragged tipi, my mother and I sat nearby eating a nasty-tasting stew, made from the worthless meat and worm-filled cornmeal the White Eyes gave us, which she had boiled in bitter water from the river the White Eyes called Pecos. We listened to Cadete and my father speaking in low, secret-filled voices.

My mother's eyes were bright with the heat of sickness, and her slender body trembled under the thin blanket draped over her shoulders. There was little stew in her bowl. She gave most of her food to me and to Caballo Negro. I wanted to spit it out, but she said I must eat to live, no matter how bad it tasted.

My mother's eyes followed every move Caballo Negro and Cadete made as she listened and waited to serve them. My father called her Ish-tia-nay, which meant "Woman." It was a sign of affection and respect among my people for a man to call his first wife by this name. Her true name was Sons-ee-ah-ray (Morning Star), for she was always out of the blankets before the morning star left with the dawn.

Listening to the words between Cadete and Caballo Negro, my mother looked at me and smiled. I understood their words gave truth to the stories the other women had told her while they dug mesquite roots for firewood far out on the llano (dry prairie). She had told me those stories. They said our people were leaving Bosque Redondo.

The words between Caballo Negro and Cadete filled my head with questions: Why are we leaving Bosque Redondo? Haven't the Shis-Indeh stayed with the Blue Coats here since before my memories? Why will we take many different paths? Will my friends go to the same place I go?

I hoped Sons-nah (Corn Tassel) would go with Caballo Negro. That would mean I'd have a friend in the strange camp. I had a good time playing with the other children, especially Sons-nah's daughter, the girl with the big, bright eyes. I called her Gah (Rabbit) because she could win races, and no one ever caught her when we played tag. She was very fast dodging anyone who grabbed for her. There was no shame in her winning. We were friends. I felt she ought to win sometimes.

I had often wished I could help watch the horses and mules with the older boys, but my mother had said no when I asked. She had notched her memory stick for each new Season of Many Leaves I had lived and did not let me dispute it, even though I was big for my age. She said I had not lived long enough to work with the horses. The horses might step or fall on me, and I would never grow to be a strong warrior like Caballo Negro. I wondered if I could look after horses with older boys in the new camp. I did not want to work for my mother like a little child. In the new camp with no White Eyes nearby, maybe I could begin my warrior training and become a keeper of horses sooner. I thought this change might be a good thing.

My wandering thoughts were cut short when Caballo Negro nodded farewell to Cadete and motioned my mother and me closer. Then he stared into the fire, holding it in his eyes, and spoke as a man in a trance. "In five suns, the Shis-Indeh will leave this place. We'll go at night in many different directions and follow many paths. The Blue Coats will know not who to follow. They can't follow all of us. Some will get away. The ones the Blue Coats follow will hide, and they'll fight if they're found, fight to the last man, woman, or child. We'll never come back to this place of bad crops, bad meat, bad water, slavery, and sickness."

He stopped speaking, and I heard a child whine nearby. I wondered if I would live to see the next Season of Many Leaves.

Caballo Negro held his hands over the fire, rubbed the cold away, and continued, "Cadete says it's best we go south to the camp of Cha, the brother of Cadete, Santana, and Roman. Cha raids the wagons on the Indah road running from sunrise to sunset near the mountains the Nakai-yes (Mexicans) call Guadalupes. Cha's camp is in the Guadalupes. The Blue Coats have looked for him many times, but they've never found him. With Cha, I can raid the Nakai-yi villages and ranches along the great river and the wagons on the Indah road. Caballo Negro will be a man again, a warrior, not a slave."

He frowned and stared at us so we would not forget what he said next. "There are Indah spies in the camp. Don't speak of leaving to anyone. A spy hears you, and we'll have to fight our way out rather than slip away.

"Ish-tia-neh, take all the supplies you can. We don't go to Cha's camp with empty hands. Prepare by working as if you're making ready for the snows in the Ghost Face Season. All the women will do this. Be ready in four days. We'll leave in the night under the noses of the Blue Coat soldiers."

My mother crossed her arms and nodded. "Uhmmph. This worthless tipi cover, it goes too?"

Caballo Negro clenched his teeth. "I hate to take it. It's falling apart, but we don't know how long we'll need it on the trail south."

From the tone of his words, I knew it was a good time to ask him a question. He might answer it rather than ignore me. I said, "Father, will you hear a question?"

"Uhmmph?"

"How did our people come to this place?"

He looked at me with sad eyes, and his mouth turned down. "You're very young and know no better time. But Cadete, to save us from all being killed at Canyon del Perro when the Blue Coats surprised and attacked us, surrendered to Keet Kah-sohn (Kit Carson), who brought us here. You were barely off the cradleboard then.

"Now, the Indah tell us where we can go and when. They won't let us leave to hunt. They give us less and less to eat. There's nothing left here but dust in the air. The Blue Coats make us share this country with the Navajos. Keet Kah-sohn drives them before him in the north, and more come here every day. The Indah made us give our land to the Navajos after we worked like slaves digging ditches for water and planting seeds, though we were here first. The Navajos ought to be feeding us. The meat the Indah give us is no good. It makes us sick. Even the iron tools they give us to plant our crops break. The blankets we are given are thin and cold, not thick and warm like those of the Indah or Nakai-yes."

Caballo Negro leaned toward our fire and stirred the embers with a stick, and I watched the sparks rise before he added, "We must leave because there is nothing left to feed our fires. We have to ride half a sun just to dig firewood out of the ground. The water here makes us sick. Many, including your mother's father and mother, have become sick because of bad meat and bad water and have gone to the land of the grandfathers. Labadie, the agent who fights for us, the Blue Coats run off and listen to his words no more. The Indah have not kept their word, so we will leave this place. Even if we die naked and starving on the llano, we will be free. Do you understand my words?"

"Yes, Father. They pound my ears." I stared into the fire and tasted the anger awakened by his words. It rose in my throat like burning stomach water. I wanted to rise up the next morning a warrior and avenge the Shis-Indeh for their suffering. The fire was burning low, and I shivered as I thought of my friends and what we had to do when we were grown. "Father, another question?"

He raised an eyebrow.

"Will the warrior Sons-nah go to the camp of Cha?"

Caballo Negro smiled.

"Sons-nah will go to the camp of Cha."

I looked in the fire and asked no more questions. At least my friend Gah would go to the new camp with me.

I shook my fist and said what I felt, "Enjuh!" (Good!)

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