Chris Scott Wilson Writer
The Fight at Hueco Tanks
“...does a fine job of interpreting historical research and weaving it into an exciting novel, The Fight at Hueco Tanks. Wilson credibly depicts the mind-set, fears, and prejudices of both the white and Native American cultures during the turbulent Apache wars era of the 19th Century, American Southwest. His final product is an interesting and stirring account. If you want to read an intriguing story of the West with a touch of realism and a bunch of adventure, The Fight at Hueco Tanks is well worth your time.” Randy D. Smith, author
Hueco Tanks (Spanish; pronounced Wayco, literally meaning hole) are situated 33 miles northeast of El Paso. Now popular among rock climbers, they are part of the Hueco Tanks State Park, one of the newest in Texas.
They saw the smoke first.
It rose as a smudge into the brassy sky, a column high over the horizon. Josh Sutton cursed into his whiskers, knowing what they were going to find, and snapped the reins over the backs of the four horses. The two leaders pricked up their ears and threw themselves into the traces, lather gathering on their shoulders and manes flying as they galloped. On the driver’s seat Josh’s curses were lost under the rattling of the harness and the banging and squeaking of the old Concord stagecoach’s chassis, but beside him Black Bob McConnell’s ten gauge shotgun waved with the motion of the coach while his left hand nervously plucked at his throat where his bandana threatened to choke him. He was young and it was only his third trip.
“What d’you reckon ’tis?” he stammered in his Irish brogue. The whites of his dark eyes were bright in his dust-caked face.
“What’d you say, boy?” Josh called back, deftly kicking the brake lever as they lurched over a rise.
“D’you reckon?” Black Bob shouted.
Josh made a pained face at the boy’s stupidity, his leathery cheeks creasing as he squinted into the distance. It was the station all right. Still burning too. Must have just happened, but they hadn’t heard any gunfire. Likely anyone there was already dead.
“Is it the relay station?” Black Bob asked.
Josh flicked his eyes to the boy’s hat which was pushed to the back of his head. “Fool boy. If’n you put your damn hat on straight you’d be able to see for yourself.”
Black Bob pulled down his hat brim so his eyes were shaded. Now he could see. His face paled under its mask of dust.
“What’d it be? Indians?”
Josh spat and whipped the horses again. “One thing for sure, it ain’t a cook-out party.” Neither of them said more as the coach raced toward the small knot of buildings that weren’t yet burned out. As they neared, the horses slowed and Josh miserably considered the rest of the journey to El Paso, another thirty odd miles with a winded team. It wasn’t going to be much of a joke.
He hauled back and kicked on the brake lever. Gratefully the horses came to a standstill, warily eyeing the smoldering relay station. Tired as they were, they fidgeted in their traces. Josh unlimbered his stiff joints and clambered to the ground, but not before he pulled his Winchester from beneath the wagon seat. Up top Black Bob’s head twisted as though it was on an axle as he scanned the country, his Adam’s apple working nervously in his throat. His hands gripped the shotgun tightly.
The stagecoach door opened and a handsome woman of thirty, with coils of dark hair pinned under her hat, pushed out into the hard sunlight.
“What was the meaning of that last piece of driving, Mr. Sutton?” she demanded. “That coach shakes a person’s bones quite enough without…” Her voice trailed away as she caught sight of Josh bending over a sprawled figure that appeared to be skewered to the ground by a stake. Her mouth fell open and her eyes strayed to the burning station. “What’s happened here?” She began to step forward but wavered when Josh looked up and shook his head.
“Don’t come any closer, Mrs. Lantz. Ain’t fit for a woman’s eyes. And don’t let your daughter come out.”
As he spoke a ten-year-old girl poked her head out. “Mama? What’s the stop for…”
“Stay there, Ruth,” Kate Lantz commanded without turning.
“Why?” the girl whined.
“Do as I say.” On hearing the firmness in her mother’s voice the girl ducked back inside the Concord stagecoach. A muttering could be heard, then the door swung open again. A dark-skinned man in a business suit stepped down, glanced at the smoking building, then his eyes fell on Josh stooping over the man. He came to stand next to Kate Lantz and laid a hand on her arm.
“Señora Lantz, I think perhaps it would be better if you returned to the coach.”
Kate turned to look at him blankly but his face showed no emotion. “Mr. Servada?”
His shoulder moved. “Señora, there may be others.”
“It’s not like this where I come from,” she said weakly as he gently turned her away from the staked body. He smiled apologetically.
“Unfortunately, Señora, this is still the frontier and alas it is yet wild. One must expect these things.”
“Perhaps you are right,” she conceded, absurdly thinking how gentlemanly this Mexican was. He was obviously wealthy and therefore must be an important man. It shocked her that she should be thinking this way when a drama had just occurred. She accepted his offered arm and stepped back up into the coach.
Inside, her daughter’s face was inquisitive. “What’s happened, Mama?”
Still thinking of Mr. Servada, Kate answered. “Someone has attacked the station. There’s a dead man out there.”
“Indians, must be Indians,” the coach’s last occupant blurted. Kate Lantz looked at him. He was a drummer, a traveling salesman in ladies’ underwear. His name was William Loving (no relation, he confessed, to the other famous Loving, the Texas cattleman) and during a short stop-over at Fort Smith in Arkansas he had tried to interest her in a whalebone corset. She had declined, quite offended he thought her figure required support. Now he was agitated, brushing at the trail-dust that had seeped through the window onto his grey checked suit, then consulting his watch that hung from his vest chain or smoothing the rim of his derby hat, lifting it away from his thinning fair which was carefully smoothed across his sweating scalp.
“Indians, I knew it,” he repeated. “I shouldn’t have taken this job. Should never have listened. Frontier women don’t need our garments. Now this. Indians. I knew it, I knew it. They’re savages. We’ll all be killed.” Towards the end hysteria had begun to creep into the edge of his voice.
“Shut up,” Kate Lantz said quietly, with an underlying tone that said she meant it. When she caught his eye she glanced meaningfully at her daughter Ruth and he caught her drift.
“Quite,” he said, looking again at his watch.
He was right, Kate Lantz thought. As their days had passed in mutual discomfort inside the bucking coach she too had been wondering whether she had done the right thing. But the letter from her sister, Emily, had implored her to go to Tucson. Emily had reasoned the new country would make Kate forget the death of her husband, James, all the quicker. At the time she had thought perhaps it might, but looking at the land that stretched away on either side of the stage trail she had begun to realize how small her world had been. Her little house in a suburb of St Louis with its handkerchief-sized yard full of flowers she had planted while James ran the sawmill. Her life had been happy and fulfilled, secure until the accident had happened. Then her days had become a haze of meaningless hours, held together only by the need to care for Ruth. But this country out here, it was so wild. Desert and mountains, the only greenery the big cacti like huge forks standing in the barren ground. And Indians too. Now it wasn’t just something she read about in the newspaper; she was part of it. The disorderliness of it all disagreed with her neat mind. She liked everything in its rightful place.
How long before they started moving?
She leaned out of the window.
“Mr. Sutton?… Oh, Mr. Servada, when will we be moving? Where’s Mr. Sutton?”
Señor Juan Servada had been on his way back to the coach when she put her head out and he knew she wasn’t going to like what he had to say.
“Just a moment, Señora.” He looked up at the wagon box where Black Bob was still nervously scanning the horizon. “Mr. McConnell? Can you see anything?”
Black Bob gulped and tore his eyes away from their vigil.
“No Sir, can’t see nuttink.”
Servada gave a half smile. “In that case Mr. Sutton requires your assistance behind the house. He said to bring the shovel from beneath the seat.”
Understanding sparked in Black Bob’s eyes and he froze. He had never buried a man before. “Sir?”
Servada reached for the shotgun. “I’ll look after that. You take the shovel.”
Black Bob held the scattergun out of the Mexican’s reach as he groped blindly for the shovel. “No, Sir, I’ll be keeping the gun, Sir, if you don’t mind.” He scrambled awkwardly to the ground and skirted the smoking building warily.
Juan Servada looked back at Kate Lantz. “Señora, part of the barn is undamaged. We’ll be staying here the night.” He half smiled, apologetically.
Kate Lantz’s face blanched. “Here? Why can’t we go on to El Paso? Mr. Sutton said it wasn’t far. We could reach it today.”
Servada shrugged. “There are no horses left. The Indians ran them off and our own are exhausted.”
“They galloped all right just now,” she argued, swinging open the door. On the hard packed earth she passed an eye over the team’s lathered flanks, realizing he was right. And the sky was drawing in. It would soon be night.
“They’ll be rested in the morning, Señora. We will reach El Paso then.”
Kate Lantz’s eyes flicked to him. “What do they call this place? If I’m to spend the night here I’d like to know.”
Servada glanced behind him at the foothills of the San Andres Mountains to the north and to the wide hillside of tumbled boulders where nature had gashed numerous small water holes into the solid rock.
“Hueco Tanks,” he answered, remembering Sutton’s description of the rock tanks and caves, wondering if they would need to hide up there.
“Waco Tanks,” she repeated, reaching a decision to make the best of it. All in all she was a practical woman. “Very well. If we must stay here then we shall. Do you think we’ll be safe?”
Servada tried to pile reassurance into his smile. “Yes, Señora. The Indians have been and taken everything. They will not come back.”
He could only hope he was right.
Copperhead eased himself away from the hot rock face and softfooted down to the campfire where his brother Apaches were sprawled, gnawing at hunks of roasted horsemeat. The last of the sunlight flashed briefly on the copper highlights in his shoulder-length hair that had given him his name. It was unbraided, held back by a headband of blue cloth torn from the skirt of a now dead rancher’s wife in New Mexico Territory. They had crossed the border into Texas two suns ago and had camped in the foothills above Hueco Tanks to rest their ponies after raiding. Then they had attacked the relay station at noon that day. They had killed the boy who tended the horses and taken their time over torturing the manager. It had been three hours before he died. Nobody else had been there and of course they had stolen the horses, firing the buildings as they pulled out. Not that the horses were fit for anything other than eating.
Copperhead pulled his knife from the soft folds of his kabuns, knee-high moccasins, and squatted by the fire to saw a hunk of meat. Greedily he bit and chewed. It was good. Not as good as mule but much better than wohaw, the Agency beef they’d been rationed at the San Carlos reservation.
Across the fire Chato’s eyes gleamed beneath his circular good medicine hat, woven from the white breast feathers of an eagle. Around his neck he wore another powerful charm, a necklace of cougar claws. He grinned, the juice from the meat running down his chin. He wiped it away with a greasy palm.
“Good? Eyanh, eat. There is tu-dishishn, coffee, as well. Another present from the blancos.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the relay station. “Now nan-tan, best scout, tell me what is happening down there. Itna-iltc-'he, tell me no lies.” He tossed the last of his meat into the fire where it sizzled then wiped his hands on his breechclout and leaned back against the rock to light his pipe. Round the fire the other braves switched their eyes from their flat-nosed leader to Copperhead, waiting for his words.
The scout swallowed and tossed his hair away from his face.
“You were right, Chato. Shis-inday, hail to the chief.” He performed a mock bow. “The dust cloud was from the stagecoach. It has stopped at the rancho we burnt below the tinajars, the rock cisterns…”
“Bah!” Chato spat, interrupting. “Hueco Tanks. How many years have our people watered their ponies there? How many times have we camped and made council there? Then the white-eyes traveled the road, then he built his little kinhs, houses, on the trail. The final degradation was when he took all the land for himself. He talked with forked tongue and our chiefs, old women that they are, fell into his trap and we have become like caged animals, confined to San Carlos. I say all the land as far as my eyes can see belongs to the Apache.” He looked away in disgust, then back at Copperhead. “Tell me the rest of it.”
Copperhead watched Chato warily, well aware of the leader’s evil temper. He had heard the speech many times round the campfires and it was one he agreed with. That was why they were here, to begin the trail to the old life. He gathered his thoughts.
“It looks as though they are making camp. There are four hombres, men, and an estune, a full grown woman with a day-den, girlchild. One man is old and carries a repeating rifle, and the other who rode on top of the stagecoach with him carries a two barreled besh-e-gar, rifle, one that shoots many little bullets. I could not see if the other two had rifles.”
Chato nodded. “We need rifles. The more we have the sooner we rid the land of these siblings ‘O’-ndi mba sitz ’n’ Nalti-i-gi-na, little coyotes that pop up out of the ground like gophers. And a woman too. Good. But the girlchild, bah, she is worthless. I think we will attack at dawn.” He looked round the other faces near the campfire. “I have spoken. What do you say?”
END OF SAMPLE
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Captivating from the beginning, this tale of the old West has all the genius of Chris Scott Wilson's descriptive writing and great knowledge of the period and takes you into the minds and the fears of the characters. This is not just a tale of "cowboys and indians" but a descriptive story of the hard and bitter times of that era and the people that lived there. An excellent read well recommended.
“. . . his western books . . . earned critical praise all round . . .” — Middlesbrough Evening Gazette