This is the last in the series of previously unpublished short stories, and this one is unique in that it’s both short story and memoir. As always, the writer only begins the work. It is finished, in every case, by the reader who brings to bear his or her beliefs, politics, biases, ambitions and imagination. Besides, I really don’t care either way. Therefore, I will leave up to you which parts are fiction and which are not. Enjoy.
Five Tight Indians
a short story and memoir by Harvey Stanbrough
I suppose I ought to write it all down while I can still remember it. I’ve carried it around for over 60 years, so probably it’s time to write it down. And I ought to write it down because the late 1950s and all that went with it won’t ever come around again. As Isabel Allende said, we should “Write what should not be forgotten.”
For sure the narrow two-lane through the Sacramento mountains in southeast New Mexico won’t come again. The road builders and their machines sliced into the mountains on one side and covered-over that two-lane with three and four lanes around my 12th birthday. All of that so the Texans would have an easier time of coming over to hunt deer and elk.
The new highway, which some of us still call “the new highway” six decades later, is still something, but that two-lane was really something. That new road is more blue-gray than black. That makes a difference. On some really dark nights before the moon slipped up over the mountain, that two-lane road was black as a satin ribbon and it felt about that narrow. And with the old-style headlights you could barely see even the yellow strips in the middle. But even when you could see them that was all you could see to tell you that you were still on the asphalt.
So most folks followed the centered yellow strips through the mountains the same way the pilot puts the nose of his airplane on the white strips on a runway, but some folks didn’t. Some folks looked to what should be the sides of the two-lane—well, if only they could see them—but they couldn’t see them on the really dark nights. But even on the really dark nights some of them looked for guidance to where the rising mountain should be on one side or where the falling away into a void should be on the other.
They only had to look for a few seconds before they understood the mountains and the void weren’t really a different dark than the night, and then they’d go back to looking at the yellow strips. Except sometimes some of them wouldn’t, and if they got stuck a fraction of a second too long on the void side they’d fly right off the road and into the canyon way off down there, sometimes without even leaving any skid marks.
And the head-on collisions. Those will still happen on the new road but not nearly as often and not nearly as many as happened in the late 1950s when it was only two lanes and dark on dark and that road twisted around so many tight curves that were too easy to take with too much speed. Those curves made it too easy to concentrate on the mountain on one side and the sheer drop on the other because on those curves the mountain or the sheer drop was directly in front of you for a moment.
So it was also easy to skip taking account of the yellow strips for a few seconds at a time. In that way the curves made it too easy to cross those yellow strips just as another set of those dim headlights came the other way pulling a heavy old steel car or truck close behind them.
And some of the mountainsides having burned off in years past were barren of anything but wispy grasses and scrub brush and baby trees and towering ponderosa pines, and that’s pretty much a constant in those mountains. But the deer and elk and bear and flocks of turkeys in the valleys when the two-lane ran through there are not a constant, or at least one that didn’t last, and those won’t come again.
The scent of pine needles and the dusty scent of pine cones won’t come again either. Not now. Not ever. Not on a much wider, much faster three- or four-lane brand-spanking-new and six-decade-old highway. Oh, and having your window down and being able to hear the stream trickling over rocks in the canyon down there. That won’t ever come again either.
With the new road laid over top of the two-lane came more people. Not just the Texans and temporary Texans to hunt deer and elk and sometimes turkeys, but the developers. Outfits like “Cloud Country” and others who bought up the mountainsides across the canyon. That included people with more money than sense, the rich people who wanted to live in the mountains for the magnificent views, which slowly disappeared because of math, which apparently nobody back then understood: the more developers and the more rich people and the more picture windows, the fewer views are available. And very soon, when they looked out the picture windows mostly all they could see was more people, same as in the cities they moved to our mountains to escape.
And of course with all the views gone the intial rush of rich people became disgusted, sold out, and moved on, leaving only the scarred land and a changed forever behind them. May all their children be born naked and angry.
But back in the late 1950s it wasn’t like that yet.
Back in the late 1950s Cloudcroft hadn’t yet become Californicated and was still of interest only to locals and skiers and the occasional tourist who was passing through and never gave a second thought to buying up a mountainside or grading a massive scar into part of it and sticking a house on it.
And just seven miles down the other side of the mountain toward the desert town of Alamogordo, where I was born in a regular hospital—Gerald Champion Memorial, but don’t ask me who Gerald Champion was or why he deserved a whole hospital as a memorial—to a girl barely turned 16 was a little roadside community called Mountain Park.
There was a regular Texaco gas station in Mountain Park with four pumps on a grease and oil-stained concrete pad, plus some rickety little wooden fresh-fruit and wood-craft places for tourists and Cadwalder’s Apple Orchard laid up alongside a little dirt road to the right. I remember a thick old plank loading dock came right down to the dirt road there at Cadwalder’s.
One of my buddies and I used to cut fresh asparagus that grew wild in the shade beneath that dock and elsewhere along that road. Sometimes we caught tadpoles when the ditch that passed under it had water in it. Cadwalder’s place and their loading dock, which hovered about five feet above the level of that dirt road, was about a quarter-mile past that Texaco station.
For a while my Uncle Bill and Aunt Virginia owned that Texaco station, and Cadwalder’s was on the same side of the dirt road as the gas station, maybe a quarter-mile behind it. Across that dirt road from the Texaco station was an old flat-roofed white block general store. It was still open when I lived up there with my paternal grandparents, though I couldn’t tell you anything about it except the old scuffed wooden threshold.
One day my grandma Sylvia held my 5 year old hand as she approached that threshold. Then she stopped and said quietly, “Well, I’ll be.” She crouched and retrieved an old silver liberty-head quarter, then stood and handed it to me. The date at the bottom was 1899. She said, “You keep that. That’s the year I was born.” There wasn’t anything else on the same side of the road as the general store.
That same little narrow, usually muddy red-dirt road twisted around through the mountains a few miles farther and “up the hill” my old man would say to another little town called High Rolls, probably because it was right on top of that part of the mountains. Sunlight very seldom made it to the surface of that tired old dirt road thanks to all the tall pines growing on both sides, and one time I saw a brown bear lying alongside a log just past Cadwalder’s. Nobody will ever see something like that again either. It’s all houses in that area now.
Sometimes we took that little road, but on the day I got to see the five Indians we didn’t. If we had I guess I wouldn’t have gotten to see them and I wouldn’t have had the best part of this memory.
But if you gassed up at that Texaco station, the man in his grey service-station uniform with the red Texaco star on the shirt pocket would check your oil and spritz your windshield with a soapy solution from a clear, round spray bottle and then wipe it down with a red cotton rag he pulled out of his hip pocket. Afterward, if you pulled back out onto that two lane, only a few miles farther along you’d come to the corner where I saw those Indians.
Before that, of course, you’d pass by an ancient apple orchard in the low valley on the other side of the oncoming traffic lane. That valley was wide and green and flat and the mountain rose suddenly from it some three or four hundred yards away. A little stream trickled through the valley—I think that was Rio Puerco, the Pig River—and usually there were a few deer in the orchard eating free apples. Sometimes a small herd of antelope, which college-educated proper people call “pronghorns,” made their way up from the plains to eat apples there too. I know, it’s a long trek, but I saw them, and I know an antelope from a white-tail from a mule deer from an elk. At the deers’ feet, often as not, there were rabbits eating grass and dropped bits of apple and whatever tasty weeds or bits of clover they could find.
Next after that orchard, on the same side of the road you’d see another little dirt road leading over a raised bridge made of two separate heavy wood planks on risers. The planks allowed cars and trucks to cross that little stream.
Some of my male relatives in my old man’s generation used to poke their heads up between those planks at night just in time to scare the bejeezus out of one unwary driver or another when their headlights lit up a human face in the middle of the bridge. They tried always to pick on male drivers because it wasn’t nice to surprise female drivers like that. The little bridge was necessary not because that little river was ever that deep, but to keep those heavy old cars and pickups from getting bogged down in the mud.
That road led off up around the mountain and eventually past farms up to and beyond a two-room schoolhouse. Really it was one big room, but they held classes for first, second and third graders in one half and those students faced one direction and classes for fourth, fifth and sixth graders in the other half and those students faced the other direction. And then there were two teachers. Both were women. I have no real specific memory of either of them but neither had grey hair and both wore long dresses and seemed nice.
I count myself fortunate to have attended the first half of my first-grade year of school in that little schoolhouse before my old man discarded my mom because that’s just the kind of guy he was. A little later he retrieved me from my paternal grandparent’s house where I’d been living for close to a year and moved me and my stepmom and my newly acquired little sister to a small town called Tatum on the flatland prairie of the llano estacado that stretches across southeast New Mexico and southwest Texas.
We moved around a lot after that too, all down and back up the length of Lea County New Mexico, but I don’t remember a lot of that. Some bad things happened during that time and I suppose a psychiatrist or psychologist or counselor would probably say I blocked a lot of it out. I didn’t block out everything though. One of those things was the old man forcing me to wear one of my sister’s dresses and stand on the front porch as other children in town filed our house on the way to school. That’s because I had wet the bed the night before. I was almost 6 years old. I’ve done the math. He was 30 years old, and a big man.
Another thing was the night my old man, a cop in that small town, angrily dragged his father, my grandfather, into the house in handcuffs and beat him senseless with his fists because he’d been drinking. Then he released one handcuff, refastened it around the iron headboard of a single bed, and dumped his father on it.
Another thing was the day I came home from school to find my beautiful yellow and brown and white collie dog lying on the front stoop, which was concrete and small with two steps up to it and the screendoor hanging at an angle from the top hinge above it. When I tried to move her, she wouldn’t go but only whimpered. My hands came away red with blood. Someone, sheerly out of meanness, had sliced her stomach open from just below her chest to her groin. I went around the house to the kitchen door and borrowed my old man’s .32 caliber Owl revolver from his dresser drawer. I put my dog to sleep right there on the front porch. I saw no reason to cause her more pain by moving her while she was still breathing.
I still hope whoever cut that sweet dog died a violent, excruciatingly painful death. If I had been older—I was 6—I probably would have gone looking for him, but he would have deserved a lot more bullets than just the one I’d used to put my lady collie to sleep.
I remember a few other memories from that time, like the time I tried to pry an empty bird’s nest out of an electrical box with a wooden handle while standing in a puddle of water. Knocked out the lights in the house, but I was wearing rubber-soled tennis shoes. I took a beating for that one, but when my old man died some 30 years later, he still thought that was only an accident. Go figure.
That period that lasted from the end of my first grade year through the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. I’m sure some good things happened during that time too, but I don’t remember any of them.
Anyway we lived in every town in Lea County at one time or another over the next several years before we moved back to Tatum eventually for what turned out to be my last few years of public school. But I’ve wandered too far afield of the story at hand.
But none of that has anything to do with the five tight Indians and me getting to see them.
Just a little ways past that dirt road that crossed the creek over the plank bridge and led up beyond the one-room school but on the same side of the two-lane was the old post office. It doesn’t really matter to this story either, so we can leave it standing there along with its newer counterpart, which stood only a short distance farther along that side of the road. Just across the driveway, really.
But across the two-lane from that old post office and back on the right side of the road was a little country store, more or less a bait shop and what is called a convenience store today. They advertised it with a hand-painted sign, black letters that read Bait Shop on a white-painted board. I had trouble understanding why it was a bait shop considering there weren’t any big places to fish nearby.
There were a lot of ponds and cow tanks up in High Rolls along Cottage Row, but you could grab a grasshopper or pry a red worm out of the ground if you went fishing in those. Anyway, some little road turned off the two-lane just shy of that little store and bait shop and led up to Cottage Row.
Cottage Row was the main dirt road through High Rolls., and everything that turned off of Cottage Row was a driveway, at least until you got down past the Community Center. From the Community Center you could park and wander off into the arrowhead-hunting field and even on up to the forest ranger’s cabin on the hill a quarter-mile or so past that field. You could also turn around at the Community Center in the big teardrop-shape oval designated for that and drive back the way you came.
But if you if you didn’t want to park at the Community Center and continue on foot or if you didn’t want to turn around in the teardrop, you might also choose to angle off to the right and head down the mountain on La Luz Road. Of course, like Cottage Row itself, La Luz Road was mud and mostly one-lane.
I say mostly one-lane because little half-moon pull-offs were carved into the hillside every now and then. La Luz Road etiquette held that when two vehicles encountered each other, the one going downhill was required to slap it into reverse and back up to the next available pull-off to let the guy going uphill pass. Which makes perfect sense if you can imagine backing down a muddy one-lane road with a cliff on the right and a sheer drop of several hundred feet on the left.
I don’t know whether anyone ever fell off that road. As early as the late 1950s most folks didn’t go that way. My own paternal grandfather wouldn’t risk it unless he was drunk, which makes absolutely no sense but that’s how things were back then. Most folks up there went from Cottage Row back down to that two-lane highway and followed it down through the tunnel to the crossroad where Alamogordo lay to the left. Then they’d turn right and go on to La Luz or Tularosa that way.
Anyway, my paternal grandparents lived up there on Cottage Row, and on the day when I saw the five tight Indians we were headed up to see them.
It was probably around 10 a.m. when we came to that corner. I remember the clunk-clunk-clunk of the turn signal and then my old man said, “Well, I’ll be damned. Five tight Indians.” He said stuff about being damned a lot so usually it wasn’t a big deal at all. But sometimes, like that time, he said it louder than usual, like something had really surprised him, and there was almost always something interesting to see when he said it with that kind of intensity. Plus he’d mentioned Indians, though I couldn’t be sure what made him think they were “tight” or what that even meant. “Tight” was something that happened when you turned a screwdriver or a wrench in the right direction until you couldn’t turn it anymore.
So at the age of 5 I grabbed the back of the seat in that old pink-and-white ’57 Chevy Belair and pulled myself up to look through the windshield between my old man and my stepmom to see what the old man was damned about this time. My little sis, two years younger, was asleep on the seat beside me so I don’t think she got to see the Indians though I probably told her about them later.
The old man didn’t stop or even slow down very much except just enough to make the turn—it was like seeing the Indians caused him to speed up—so I saw them for only maybe five seconds or so. But that was probably the best five seconds of my life. It was maybe the five seconds that would make me want to be a storyteller.
Anyway, there they were. As I’ve mentioned, there were five Indians, which today we know were actually Native Americans. They were all men, and they were all sitting a few feet back from the corner, maybe on the grass or maybe on one corner of a Navajo blanket. Only they weren’t Navajos, my old man said, but “stinkin’-drunk Apaches, probably over from the reservation.” I wasn’t old enough to guess how he knew they smelled bad or than they were drunk or where they were from. Sometime later I learned he was referring to the Mescalero Apache reservation located on the other side of the hill near Ruidoso. Later, during my later teenage years and adulthood, I visited it several times. It’s a good place, filled with good people.
But Navajos or not, each of the Indians had a Navajo Indian blanket wrapped around his shoulders with it gathered in one hand at his throat. They were all hunched forward a little, maybe against the cold. Even at that time of the morning it was bitter cold out there. There were still little tufts of ice-edged snow on the bumps in the grass behind the Indians though all of it had melted off the two-lane and along the sides.
I thought probably they were sitting Indian-style under those blankets, with their knees spread and their ankles crossed, but all of that was under the blankets so I couldn’t know for sure. At the time I was so surprised and happy to see them and lucky to somehow have found myself with one foot in an earlier generation and one foot in my own that I didn’t even wonder why they were out there. They might as easily have been sitting in the forest somewhere so the wind wouldn’t be so strong and the air wouldn’t be so cold. Or they might have been sitting in a wikiup or a tipi or a living room or almost anywhere other than on that corner so my old man and others like him could ridicule them.
Their eyes were large and black and disinterested, or maybe resigned. They peered foggily and without care from their craggy, angular, creased brown faces. One grinned. Maybe he grinned at us or maybe at a fleeting thought or maybe at something beyond us or maybe even at a spirit we couldn’t see. And I thought that was probably it. He was probably grinning at a joke some spirit had told him. Then he tipped up a thick round dark-amber bottle and drank. Before the grin faded I saw that his teeth were yellowed and showed gaps, but I thought it was still a nice smile. I imagined he was a good Indian, even though he was alive and therefore couldn’t be a good Indian by my old man’s definition.
Three of the Indians wore broken yellow straw hats, and one was wearing a stained red ball cap with a symbol on the front in a stained flat white oval. I couldn’t make out the symbol but I imagined it was probably something Indian like a bow and arrow or a drum or something. I couldn’t tell what it was stained with either, but the stain was ragged and lay in a thick line across the crown just above the bill, so it was probably sweat. And the yellow straw hats on the others were stained the same way in the same place. And then one wore no hat at all but only a sharp part in his shiny black hair and it pulled back and tied into a braid, and with only a few wisps of hair dancing free in the breeze to either side of the part and along his forehead.
I only assumed the breeze but it must have been there because stray wisps of long black hair stuck out from under the sides of the ball cap and at least one of the straw hats too, and that hair also flipped around a little, slapping the cheeks and ears and corners of the eyes of those two Indians. And above the place where they clasped the blankets closed, two of the Indians wore chunks of turquoise on heavy silver necklaces. Some of the turquoise chunks were the size of my old man’s knuckles and a couple were as large as my fist. A lot of silver surrounded the turquoise. “Old pawn” they call such things now.
Three others of the Indians had braided pony tails. They might’ve been wearing turquoise too but I couldn’t swear to it. There was too much to see. Two of them I could tell about the pony tails right away because the braid came around their neck and laid across one shoulder or the other. From there, one braid tucked under a blanket and the other lay on top of the blanket. The other one I could tell after we passed them and I whipped around in the seat to look out through the black glass. His pony tail hung straight about halfway down his back.
My baby step sister continued to sleep on the back seat below my excitement.
I watched the Indians through the back window until we made the next curve which was only a short distance up the dirt road. As we went around it and the Indians disappeared from my view, I turned around and grabbed the back of the front seat again, excited. I grabbed it hard and pulled myself up a little and said, “Dad!”
In that instant I wanted him to talk about the Indians. I wanted to know everything he knew about them. Maybe he would tell me a story about them, maybe about when he was a little boy growing up in these mountains.
What must the Indians have been like then? Were they proud bare-chested warriors on horses? Did they hunt deer with bows and arrows and build fires and send smoke signals? My whole world would open up. I thought of the Indian who had grinned and I grinned too. I grinned as much like him as I could. I hoped my spirit would grin at his spirit too, if I had one. Maybe you had to get older first.
Anyway, in the instant just before I said, “Dad!” the old man took the final drag off a cigarette, cracked the window down a bit and flipped the cigarette butt to the dirt road. And when “Dad!” filled his right ear he was turning his head to look at my stepmom.
But his gaze raked across the rear-view mirror and, for an instant, locked on me.
I froze, and then I sat back.
His eyes were cold. Angry. I’d seen that look before.
I lay my left palm on my still-sleeping baby sister’s left shoulder, looked at the scuffs on the knees of my bluejeans and pretended I hadn’t said his name.
Up front his gaze moved on across the mirror, settling on my stepmom as he said something to her. Then he looked back to the front as he continued to guide the car toward Cottage Row.
I took my palm from my baby sister’s shoulder and settled a little farther to my right, careful to do so without making any noise or risking eye contact. Then I scrunched myself into the right corner of the back seat so I wouldn’t be in his direct line of sight should he choose to glance into the mirror again.
As if with an afterthought, he looked at my stepmom again and, with quiet gravel in his voice, muttered, “Only good damn Indian’s a dead damn Indian.”
Well, I’d heard that before and it impressed me even less now. I knew then that old man would never tell me anything about those Indians or anything else important. He couldn’t. He was plenty smart, but he wasn’t brave enough.
I remained silent, thinking about Smokey the Bear—today I understand that poor little bear cub is somehow considered racist—and cigarettes and forest fires and hatred and the grin on the face of that one Indian back at the corner. I bet he was a very wise man, that Indian, seated there among his friends on a corner that would never be there again in quite the same way.
And we went on up the hill to visit my grandpa and grandma.