The Witch's Tongue
By James D. Doss
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 James D. Doss
All rights reserved.
REGARDING THE WITCH'S BODY PARTS
To the typical observer, the trio of mute ones do not resemble human beings. Not in the least.
This being the case, it could hardly be expected that they would look anything at all like three Pueblo women who had been petrified (depending on the version of the legend) by either a feat of malicious sorcery or an act of supernatural mercy. To the uninformed eye, the massive monoliths appear to be merely three huge humps of weathered sandstone that were squatting atop the mesa aeons before saber-toothed tigers and majestic mammoths roamed the foothills of those mountains that would eventually be christened "San Juan" by the Spanish invaders. According to the tale the Ute shaman told — and Daisy Perika would not tolerate the least hint of skepticism — after fleeing to the top of the mesa to escape an Apache raiding party, the trio of Pueblo women had prayed for deliverance from their ruthless pursuers. Their bodies had been turned to stone, their spirits set free to enter Upper World. Daisy also asserted that the sandstone women were not quite nine hundred years old and that before the remarkable event, the top of the canyon had been as flat as a billiard table. Local geologists dared not contend the point with the hard-eyed woman.
Whatever the ages of the sandstone towers, the deep canyons that snaked and twisted and turned and twined along the edges of Three Sisters Mesa were ancient beyond imagining. And being so very old, there were some rather odd things that lingered between their walls. According to Daisy, some were wispy remnants of material bodies. There were others (so she said) that had never occupied a house of flesh. The shaman knew this to be true; she had encountered a score or more of them and often chatted with those who were lonely. Daisy's knowledge was not limited to the spirits. Because she prepared medicines, the tribal elder knew every plant that grew in this wilderness. She begged their pardon for harvesting flowers, berries, leaves, stems, and roots. She was acquainted with all the animals, too, and greeted each of them by name. Some returned the compliment. But there were a few odd features in these shadowy depths that even Daisy Perika knew little about.
For example, consider that canyon stretched out closest to the sunset.
The shaman did not know that ages and ages ago, halfway up the cliffs, a thick basaltic layer had bridged the chasm. Though having little utility except for the occasional lizard or mouse or fuzzy caterpillar who wished to cross over the shady depths, it was nevertheless a wondrous thing to behold. Or would have been, had human beings arrived in time to see it. Alas, the marvelous formation collapsed a hundred millennia before the most recent ice age. In the bottom of the canyon, portions of the fallen bridge have cracked and weathered and washed away in seasonal floods. Even so, some evidence remains. A few black basalt slabs are still half buried in the sandy floor, and there are lofty remnants of the ancient span. Opposed on the sheer cliffs are a pair of dark projections. Well above the Three Sisters side of the canyon, a black basaltic shelf juts out prominently from crumbling sandstone. On the wall across the way, a smaller sibling mimics its mate.
In the early autumn of 1883, a Scottish prospector on the way to Fort Garland happened by, riding a fat black ginny mule, leading a gray donkey. This European was cursed with a touch of superstition, blessed with a wry sense of humor. While sipping black tea by his campfire, the traveler named the larger protrusion the Witch's Tongue, and made note of this small bit of vanity in his diary. Across the canyon, the smaller shelf cried out for similar recognition. And so the pliant pilgrim from Portnacroish dubbed it the Witch's Thumb, and penned this also on the yellowed page.
The seeker after gold was murdered six months later in Los Ojos by a swarthy prostitute who appropriated the Scotsman's poke, his Winchester carbine with the silver-inlaid maple stock — even his little writing book. Because she could not read, the sporting woman traded the dead man's diary to a U.S. Army cartographer for three Havana Provincial cigars. Sadly, the unfortunate prospector's name has been forgotten.
The Witch's Tongue and Thumb have not.
It may have been due to a few unfortunate references to brujos, or recurring tales of hunters and trappers who had fallen into that twilight crack in the earth, never to surface again — or it may have been a more subtle hint of evil sensed by tribal elders. But the canyon was always known to the Utes as a bad place. So bad that in the midtwentieth century the Tribal Council had (in its collective wisdom) officially pronounced the six-mile-long crevasse off-limits except to members of the tribe. But there were, as there must always be, exceptions to the rule.
From time to time, a privileged few were granted special passes. These hardy souls were typically archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, or geologists — and always matukach. The reckless white-skins did not believe in the People's legends, and so had some measure of protection from those unspeakable things that haunted the canyon.
The more sensible folk among the Southern Utes would not have thought of visiting this forbidden place; even the braggarts and scoffers and show-offs generally came up with an acceptable reason to avoid its dark recesses. And so it was that human beings — particularly tribal members — were not to be found in this particular canyon.
Except for the exceptions.
BETWEEN THE canyon walls, beneath the cloud-shrouded slit of sky, the lonely soul attended to his solemn business. He was confident that in this forbidden place, his enterprise would be safe from prying eyes.
Vain are the thoughts of men.
Jacob Gourd Rattle was already being watched.
OPPOSITE THE Witch's black Tongue, perched on the Witch's black Thumb — reclines the cougar. Her unblinking yellow eyes are focused on the man on the canyon floor. She does not wonder about what the peculiar biped is doing down there — such complex thoughts are not in her nature. The hungry feline licks her lips. Imagines how his warm flesh will taste.
THE BUSY man was unaware of the mountain lion's pitiless stare — or even the fact that she was there. As Jacob Gourd Rattle removed earth and stones from the hole in the ground, he concentrated on the happy thought that the troublesome woman was not with him.
Kicks Dogs would return, of course. She always did.
But, Jacob hoped — not until the appointed time.
Not until his work here was done.
* * *
CHARLIE MOON would have been quite interested in Jacob Gourd Rattle's clandestine activities, but the tribal investigator was a long drive to the north of the Southern Ute reservation. And like the man digging the grave in the canyon, Daisy Perika's nephew was also engaged in important business.
The three serious men were in the antiquarian's storage room, seated around an unusual table.
Charlie Moon — intent on the delightful task of fleecing his friends of their currency — hardly noticed the furniture.
Scott Parris had already described the card table as "kinda sissy for a man's game of gut-bucket poker."
The mildly miffed owner — who made his quite comfortable living buying and selling fine antiques — informed his gaming companions that they had the distinct honor to rest their elbows on a genuine George II demi-lune mahogany card and tea table with a two-fold top, baize-lined surface with wells. Not to mention club legs and pad feet — thank you very much.
Ralph Briggs's semibrutish guests had not been impressed.
On the mantelpiece, a Victorian brass lantern clock twirled its delicate hands in the slowest of motions to measure the flow of that indefinable river called Time. When it chimed once to announce the eleventh hour, it so happened that Scott Parris was the dealer. The broad-shouldered, sandy-haired, blue-eyed chief of Granite Creek PD was also the heavy loser.
Charlie Moon was down by eight blue chips, but not defeated. The Indian was lying low, waiting for his chance to ambush this mismatched pair of matukach.
Ralph Briggs, banker of the game, was nearly twelve hundred dollars up. Hoping to get away while the getting was good, he faked a yawn. "Last hand?"
Scott Parris took a sip of black coffee from a china cup that was almost as translucent as the antiquarian's ploy. "Okay," he said. "But how about we switch to Leadville stakes and White Mule rules."
The Ute nodded his assent.
Ralph Briggs considered protesting, saw the flinty look on the white policeman's face, thought better of it. "Very well."
Parris rubbed his hands together. "Then let's play poker, gents."
Each of the gamblers anted in a white chip.
The chief of police shuffled, offered the cards to the player on his right.
Charlie Moon cut the deck, passed it back to the dealer.
Scott Parris dealt five rectangles to each of the players, pulled his own hand close to his chin. Garbage. He looked to the antiquarian. "Okay, Ralph — how many do you need?"
The smallish man pursed his lips. "Two will do."
The dealer dealt the pair.
Ralph Briggs looked at his new hand. Well, now. Look at that.
Parris eyed his best friend. "Charlie?"
Moon wore a mask that grinned. "I am happy with what I'm holding."
Parris snorted at the Ute. "Dealer takes three," he said, and did. More garbage! He squinted over his pitiful cards at the antique dealer.
Ralph Briggs raised a thin eyebrow at the crafty Indian, eyed his Hearty flush. I shall demolish Mr. Moon. On the pretense of miserly caution, he started to push four white chips to the center of the table, hesitated — withdrew half of the pale quartet.
The Ute sniffed the air and smelled the musky odor of deceit. "I'll see that pitiful wager." He offered up two whites. "And raise — this much." The tribal investigator baited the pot with four red chips.
Parris folded. "I hate this game. I hate it more than dentist drills and cod liver oil and income taxes."
As if some dark magic might have transformed the cards since his last furtive glance, Briggs examined what he was holding with exaggerated care. Moon is bluffing. "I shall see you," he offered a quartet of matching reds, "and raise you — thusly." The antiquarian sent two blue chips to join their lesser friends.
The Ute called and raised again. Six blue chips.
The dapper little man in the tweed suit did the same. Six and six more.
"You are a bulldog, Ralph." Charlie Moon pondered his next move. "But I am feeling reckless. So I'll see that and raise you ... hmm ... how much? Oh what the hey, a greenback dollar means nothin' to a fella like me. I will risk all I've got." He pushed a multicolored pile of chips to gorge the pot.
The folded chief of police stared goggle-eyed at the players.
As a matter of civilized principle, Ralph Briggs firmly refused to sweat. In lieu of this means by which common men cool their skin, his high forehead beaded with tasteful pearls of unscented perspiration. The Indian is bluffing. I know it! He opened his mouth to call, but his churning stomach had the last five words. But if he is not ... His fingers refused to touch the last of his chips. The antiquarian choked. And folded.
The Ute placed his cards facedown, raked in the red-white-and-blue pot, offered his surly adversaries the consolation of a melancholy sigh. "You fellas are the lucky ones. After you've hit the hay tonight, you'll only think about how bad you played for maybe an hour or two or three. But before the sun comes up, you'll finally get worn out from all your moaning and groaning, and drift off to a troubled sleep. But me — I'll be up all night long." He flashed a toothy smile. "Counting my winnings."
Scott Parris shook his head, glanced at the other beaten man. "Ralph, don't you just hate it when he does that?"
Ralph Briggs glared at Charlie Moon. Yes. Indeed I do.
While the winner was donning his fleece-lined denim jacket and black John B. Stetson hat, Briggs counted and recounted the meager remnant of his chips. He mumbled, "I just know Charlie was holding trash — I should have called."
Parris leaned close to Briggs and whispered, "That Ute never bluffs."
Ralph Briggs desperately wanted a reason to feel better. "Never?"
The town cop shook his head. "Never. If you'd have called, he would've cleaned you out."
After the chief of police had departed for hearth and home, the antique dealer followed the Indian into the display room of his expensive, exclusive shop. I should not ask, but — "Charles, just between friends, and just this once — I wonder if I could impose upon you to tell me what —"
The seven-foot Ute stopped in midstride, looked down at the smaller man. Charlie Moon shook his head in a gesture that suggested a mix of sadness and disappointment. "Ralph, it is one of Nature's fundamental laws — if a player wants to see the hand a man is holding, he has to lay his money down. But you did not call my bet."
"You are absolutely right, of course." Briggs looked away and had the grace to blush. "I do not know what came over me. It must be the lateness of the hour."
"Don't worry about it." Moon clapped him on the back. "Because you and me are buddies — I have already forgot you asked."
"I am eternally grateful — and you are very gracious."
Moon took a look around. "I might want to make a purchase from your store."
The vulgar reference to a store made the pale man wince. "Do you have something particular in mind?"
"I will know it when I see it. Or maybe the other way around."
The businessman made a halfhearted gesture. "Feel free to browse." With a greedy glint in his eye, Ralph Briggs watched Charlie Moon examine this and that. He wondered about a number of things. For instance — on top of his winnings, how much more hard cash did the full-time rancher, part-time tribal cop have in his hip pocket? And how much would he be willing to part with?
As it came to pass, the Ute was separated from the white man by a rift of cultures and a finely crafted walnut display case. The latter barrier was glazed with brittle Venetian glass that cast the contents in a pale bluish hue. On the top shelf, a remarkable assortment of collectibles was laid out on a plush carpet of purple felt.
An 1857 French Army dental kit, neatly packaged in a small wooden box that presented a silvered mirror on the open lid.
An ivory crescent of walrus tusk, delicately engraved with the ghostly form of a four-masted Boston whaling vessel, sails still billowed by phantom winds.
Representing the Yankee invasion of the Confederate States of America, a corroded assortment of powdery-white lead bullets, silver medals, brass buttons, bronze belt buckles.
A diamond-studded bracelet and magnificent emerald ring worn by the lovely young heiress of the Flint Hill and Nacogdoches Oil Company on the very night she drove her black 1949 Packard convertible into Attoyac Bayou.
The centerpiece of the display was a .45-caliber Colt Peacemaker with ivory grips. According to the information card, the single-action revolver had been presented to Chief Ouray by his first wife, Black Mare.
The proprietor of The Compleate Antiquarian observed his potential customer with intense professional curiosity. Though the Ute had a glance for each of the fascinating objects, Moon's gaze was invariably pulled back to that special item. Of course. Now Ralph Briggs thought he understood what the Indian was doing here. The proprietor allowed himself a knowing smile. "See anything you fancy?"
Charlie Moon pointed at the item that had caught his eye. "How much do you want for that?"
The owner of the establishment unlocked the case. "The Colt Peacemaker?"
The Ute shook his head, tapped his finger on the glass.
"Oh, that." He arched an eyebrow at Moon. "What on earth would a hardcase cow-piekicking cowboy like you want with —"
After a perfectly timed dramatic pause, Briggs told him how much.
Charlie Moon swallowed hard. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Witch's Tongue by James D. Doss. Copyright © 2004 James D. Doss. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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