Into the Cool Dark Air
Canyon del Muerto, Arizona, 1864
There were rumors of war before the first frost of autumn. But they were only rumors, and we saw no enemies except the usual bands of Utes, coming and going, as they always did. We didn't see the one called Two Face, the man with the scar, who was their leader. We just saw a lot of blue coats, milling around in different camps. But they did not come over to our canyon and they left us alone.
My father said, "Maybe they don't want to fight."
But Grandfather asked him, "Do you think they have come here to camp?"
That day, my parents were killed.
This is how it happened.
First, I should tell you my name. I am called Tobachischin and my grandfather is called Dinneh- Kloth, but these are formal and we seldom use them. I have not told you the names of my mother and father because they were murdered by the blue coats. It is impolite to speak of the dead, and I will not do it. But I can tell you that I was born into my mother's clan, the people of the salt. And, my father's clan, the water people. My name, Tobachischin, means Water's Child. Tobachischin is a great name because that person was the Sun Father's son; but that is another story, for another time.
My mother was stirring a pot of peaches at the time I heard the hoofbeats echo on the canyon walls. Father was away, deer hunting, when the blue coats came up on their horses. A man who rode in front and had very dirty yellow hair spoke in American to my mother, "This will be your last meal." There were twenty men, in all. The horses stamped and pawed at the soft, red sand as the man talked. We understood his language, but we didn't usually let on that we could speak it. There was no sound except the licking of the flames and the nervous hooves of the horses. The blue coat leader with the yellow hair wiped his forehead with the cloth that white people use to store their sweat and nose particles. He looked annoyed, not worried. "There is a place we're going to take you," the man said. "You call it Hweeldi. That is where we're going to take you."
My mother did not look up from her constant stirring. The juniper smoke, blue and faint in the white sunlight, drifted.
My mother, not looking away from the fire, asked in Navajo, "Why are you here? You don't belong here."
The blue coat took off his blue cap. He ran his finger around the inside of the brim. His hair was the color of corn silk, dirty yellow. His teeth, when he spoke, were gray. I remembered that Grandfather said people with gray teeth were the relations of Gray Giant, the monster who was killed by Coyote in the beginning time. Gray Giant also had yellow hair. So, I knew this man couldn't be trusted, and that he had to be evil.
However, my mother made no sign that she knew any of these things. She stirred the peach stew and I could tell she was thinking. Then my father came out of the bush known as Apache plume. He was leading his big roan horse, on top of which there was a freshly killed deer.
The blue coat never answered my mother's question, but now he asked my father, "Why are you carrying that buck on your horse? Don't you know you won't have any use for it at Hweeldi?" My father said nothing, nor did his face show any surprise. I heard a hawk cry, somewhere far off in the upper canyon. It was answered by a little wren.
The blue coat turned and addressed the men on horseback.
"I don't think these people understand American," he said.
A small, fat, shuffling Navajo came out from behind the snorting horses. He walked slowly, his mouth open. He looked ugly.
He addressed my mother in Navajo.
"What are you doing?"
She didn't answer.
The air began to smell sweetly of stewing peaches.
"What you're doing is foolish," the Navajo said. His pants could not contain his belly. He wore a torn old vest. His clothes were made of cloth and they were threadbare and you could see his knees, which were dark brown from the sun.
I glanced at my father to see what he might be thinking. He was calm, and very still. Holding the reins of his roan, he watched to see what would happen. His deer rifle was in his right hand, the reins were in his left. The big red horse, standing in the sun with the dead buck heavy upon it, cast a shadow over my father. He was entirely in that shadow, unmoving and calm.
"That is a foolish thing you are doing," the fat man said, sneering.
"What did you say?" asked the yellow-hair soldier.
The fat man, ignoring him, went on.
"There will be no peaches on the long walk to Hweeldi. On the long walk, you will have nothing to eat and you will die. What good is food to the dead?"
The fragrance of the peaches hung on the air.
The blue cedar smoke lay in the windless space between the canyon walls.
The yellow-hair man told the fat Navajo to stop talking.
No one said anything.
No one moved.
What my father did then was unseen because he was mostly in shadow. He dropped to his knees, and levering a shell into his rifle, he fired from the hip. A spurt of flame came out of the barrel of his gun. The fat Navajo fired back at him with a pistol.
Suddenly, there were many guns going off all around me. I ran to shield my mother, but a bullet stung my ankle. Another caught my mother in the neck. She dropped beside the stewpot, dead. In the little thicket of Apache plume, my father disappeared. His rifle spat flame, the blue coats went to their bellies or behind their horses. There hadn't been any time for them to retreat and they were firing wildly, centering their shots at the thicket where my father was hidden. I was lying beside my mother, trying to keep myself flat. The bullets were kicking up dust and ringing against the canyon walls.
Then, all at once, no sound came from the Apache plume. In this moment of quiet, I knew my father had joined my mother. His big red horse was still standing in the sunlight, with the buck heavy upon it. I touched my ankle and felt cold blood. I didn't know if I could run, but I was going to try. In the confusion, the yellow-hair soldier had spun around on his horse, shooting at my father. There was a cloud of fine red dust where his horse stirred it up, and I stood up and, using this as cover ran for the crack in the canyon, where we stored our valuable things. Running, I stumbled twice. No shots were fired. I made it to the crack. The blue coats stopped firing. I vanished into the fissure in the canyon wall, and fell into the cool dark air.
In Canyon del Muerto, Arizona, in 1864, young Dineh Tobachischin's parents are shot dead by the "blue coats, " agents of the American government eager to appropriate Navajo land. Tobachischin's medicine-man grandfather heals the boy's bullet-wounded ankle, and the two hide out from the blue coats and from archenemy Two Face, a Ute and an ally of wicked Coyote who, according to Grandfather, "has more hate in him than all the blue coats put together." Grandfather's and Tobachischin's lives become an obstacle course of adversaries. With the help of the wind, animals, Old Man Gila Monster, and Grandfather's medicine bag, the two stave off danger until Grandfather's prophesy that he will be felled by one of Two Face's arrows comes true. Grandfather's dying wish is that Tobachischin protect the coyote bead that he keeps in the medicine bag. Tobachischin soldiers on. When he stumbles upon the aftermath of a massacre of whites by Utes, he is accidentally shot by Mary, a young Dineh medicine woman. While she nurses him back to health, they commiserate: Two Face is responsible for the deaths of Mary's white adoptive parents (hence her "American" name). Tobachischin, Mary, and Little Mary, baby daughter of Mary's adoptive parents, use the magic in the medicine bag to thwart evil until all that is left is the mysterious coyote bead, whose power Tobachischin unleashes during his final showdown with Two Face. The novel is set against the travesty of justice known as the Long Walk, during which the U.S. government forced the Navajo people on a deadly 350-mile march to Fort Sumner in southeastern New Mexico; narrator Tobachischin represents one of the resistors, of which there were many. Interestingly, the episode's heroes and villains aren't divided along racial lines: some whites (like the fictional Mary's parents) respected Native Americans, and the Naakaii (Mexicans), Utes, and Dineh themselves were all guilty of barbarous acts. Alas, the book's narrative isn't as rich as its historical backdrop. Characterizations lack nuance, the prose is often banal ("I asked myself if it would ever end, . . . if there would ever be peace"), and it's obvious when dialogue is being used to tip off the reader (Grandfather to Tobachischin: "Those lines are for the thirteen months of our year, the Navajo year"). But aspects of daily Navajo life--cooking and eating, rituals, interpreting nature--are astutely and painstakingly relayed, making the reader's transport back in time an effortless and worthwhile journey.