Copyright© 2018 by Kraken
My goal was to reach Santa Fe in fifteen days. Unlike the last time I’d made the trip I stayed on the road pushing hard. I knew the route this time, and wasn’t quite so concerned over threats. The first six days I averaged almost thirty miles a day, but the mules were starting to get tired, so I backed off to a steady twenty. This gave me enough time in the mornings to do my Tai Chi as well as the Aikido and Krav Maga katas. Except for the mornings I was in town, and the first six days of this trip, I’d done them religiously. The days I didn’t do them, my body didn’t feel right until late morning or early afternoon.
From my time in the Air Force, I was a big fan of Murphy’s Law and collected the various corollary laws, often sharing them with my friends in the Army. Late in the afternoon of the eighth day, Murphy reared his ugly head.
I was starting up a long hill when rifle fire and yells broke out about seven hundred yards to the east of the road. Turning the wagon, I drove over to the base of hill where I climbed down from the wagon and climbed up to the crest. Looking over the rim I saw a scene straight from a classic Hollywood western. A group of twelve prairie schooner wagons were pulled into a circle near the center of a large, flat, sand and gravel bowl between hills while a group of more than thirty Indians were riding around them yelling and firing rifles, pistols, and arrows. The bowl stretched for over four hundred yards in all directions from the wagons.
My first two thoughts were: this was a terrible place to camp; second was that the Indians had to be mostly young, or they would have waited until morning and attacked the wagon train as it left through the hills.
The range to the closest Indian was at the extreme effective range for my M4, so I went back to the wagon and pulled out the Remington A700 hunting rifle from the wagon, as well as five, ten round magazines.
On the way back up the hill, I realized I’d been cussing under my breath the whole way from the hill to the wagon, and back up. I was cussing everyone and everything including the world at large. What was it about me that made me everyone’s defender and protector? I didn’t seem to mind defending and protecting myself or my family, even my extended family, if I had one. But doing it for people I didn’t even know, against people I didn’t know, required me to make a snap judgement using my moral compass to determine who was right and who was wrong. Was my moral compass any better than one of the warriors circling the wagons at the bottom of the hill, who thought he was doing right?
In a burst of sudden clarity, I realized that was the crux of the issue. Whether in 1991 Iraq or 1850 New Mexico Territory, a man had to stand up for what he believed was right, to be his own weather vane and moral compass. In times of lawlessness, you answered to yourself and your beliefs. With a sigh, I realized justifying what I was doing wasn’t going to make it any easier.
Settling in at the rim of the hill I got into a comfortable shooting position. My first task was to find the war chief who should be watching the action from the back of his horse. I finally found him on the far side of the circled wagons with another Indian, on a small knoll partially hidden by a very large boulder about seven hundred yards away. Through the scope, I could see enough of the side of one Indian, to have a good shot. So, aiming for the upper chest just in front of the arm, I steadied myself and fired. The Indian went limp and fell over off the right side of his horse. The other Indian’s horse took a couple of steps forward as he checked on his friend, and I repeated the first shot with him. This one stiffened and sat up straight, before dropping his lance and falling off his horse.
No one had noticed the war chiefs were down yet, so I switched my aim to warriors riding around the wagons. I didn’t want to shoot towards the wagons, so I concentrated on the area east of the wagons straight out from me.
Hitting a moving target is never easy. Hitting a moving target on horseback is even more difficult. I forced myself to be patient, picked a target just as they started around the front of the wagons, tried to time his horses stride, and fired before he started around the far end. I missed the first shot, but hit the next seven. I was lining up my next shot when one of the warriors finally noticed the war chiefs were down and with a yell started over to the knoll where the chiefs were lying. I took the opportunity for three more quick shots as they rode, strung out, to the knoll.
Once they were all at the knoll they milled around for a few minutes, talking, before they all seemed to agree on a new chief who sent them back out to wagons. When the firing started from the wagons again I put the new chief in the center of my scope, and took an easy shot.
Again, it took them a while to notice the new chief was down, and I killed three more of them circling the wagons before they noticed. This time the milling took longer, and the arguing was louder. Finally, a new chief was elected, and the Indians went back to circling the wagon.
I waited until the firing started again, and again shot the new chief. This time the warriors noticed within seconds. They all rode off past the bodies of the chiefs, and this time just kept going. It was obvious to them that this area was bad medicine. I waited a couple of minutes before standing up and waving at the train to let them know I was friendly.
That was when Murphy asserted himself, and O’Toole added his corollary, just to make it interesting.
As I finished waving and was bringing my arm down to the side I saw a puff of smoke, and a second later felt my right arm jerk backwards spinning me around. The momentum of the spin took me down off the hill in a rolling tumble. My right arm hurt something fierce and the pain only increased every time it hit the ground as I rolled down the hill. I lay at the bottom of the hill for a few minutes trying to recover my senses. All I could think about was that Murphy’s first rule of combat held true, even in 1850: “friendly fire, isn’t!”
Finally, the pain in my arm got to be too much, so I rolled to my left. Using my left arm as leverage, I stood up looking at my right arm. On the outside of my right arm I found a small tear on the sleeve soaked with blood. I took off my shirt, and found a deep gash across the outside of my right upper arm. Stumbling to the wagon I rummaged through the back and found my EMT kit. Sitting down, I poured water and then some alcohol over the wound to try and clean it out and disinfect it. It took me a few minutes to recover from the pain of the alcohol, but eventually I was able to look more closely at the wound. I didn’t see any more sand in or around it so I spread some antibiotic cream, covered it with a large piece of gauze, and wrapped a bandage around it. The wound was wide enough it couldn’t be stitched closed, and wasn’t deep enough to cause major problems, but man did it hurt! I fully expected it to remain sore and unusable for a few days, eventually leaving a nasty looking scar. I washed a couple of Motrin and penicillin down with water, before putting everything away back in the EMT kit and repacking it in the wagon. I put my bloody shirt back on, and walked up the hill, picking up my hat where I’d dropped it about halfway down the hill. At the rim, I picked up the Remington and carefully looked over the rim of the hill at the wagon train.
A small group of men were having some kind of argument as they walked towards me. They were still three hundred yards away, so I turned back down the hill after scooping up the .308 brass, and my empty magazines. I put the A700 and my M4 under the canvas cover on the wagon bed, pulled out my Indian rifle in its leather sleeve, and retied the covers on the wagon. I started back up the hill trying to hold the Indian rifle cradled in my right arm leaving my left hand free. Just before reaching the top of the hill I yelled out to let them know I was friendly. I peeked over the top of the hill and saw the four men had stopped at the bottom of the hill. They weren’t holding their weapons in a threatening manner and they certainly weren’t pointed in my direction, so I walked over the top of the hill and started down.
As I walked into normal talking range the apparent leader, said, “We were just coming to check on you. We were worried Ezra here had hit you with his shot.”
They looked at the one that must be Ezra. I handed the leader my rifle, and walked over to Ezra.
“Well he hit me, alright.” I showed him my right arm. “I’m not happy about it but I must say that was one heck of a shot.”
I reached out with my right hand to shake his hand. When he lifted his hand to shake mine, I cold cocked him with a left to the jaw. Old Ezra must have had a glass jaw because he was out for the count.
Taking my rifle back from the leader, I looked at the three remaining men. “When Ezra wakes up tell him two things for me. First, never shoot at someone unless he’s certain it’s an enemy; and second, tell him that was indeed one hell of a shot. Do you mind telling me what you all are doing out here?”
“Well, Mister, we’re on our way to California, and figured there had to be a shortcut.”
“Hell, there’s lots of shortcuts to California. Every one of them has the bones of pilgrims like you, all who died of thirst, trying to use them. There’s no water between here and the Colorado River. At least not enough water for you and all the animals you have.”
I pointed east and said, “One mile that way is the Rio Grande River. Between here and the river, is the Camino Real, a road that runs in sight of the river from Santa Fe all the way down to El Paso. If you want to live to reach California, head east to the Camino Real and then go either north to Santa Fe, or south to El Paso. At either place, you can head west to California on known useable trails. Continue this foolishness, and you won’t last a week.”
“Which way would you recommend?”
“It doesn’t really matter. You’re about half way between Santa Fe and El Paso. The trail from El Paso is a little hotter and drier than the trail from Santa Fe but both are well traveled.”
Having said my piece I turned from the group saying, “No matter which way you decide to go, you’re going to have problems with Indians and bandits, so keep Ezra there alive.”
I climbed up into the wagon and started to drive over to where the chiefs had fallen by the boulder when the leader asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Driving the mules, I answered over my shoulder, “I’m on my way to Santa Fe to get some business done.”