The Spanish horse patrol was on route to Bodega on the Pacific. Rumors, then reports, had come to the fort beside St. Rafael near San Francisco Bay that other Europeans had been seen in the headlands around the mountain called Tamalpais.
The five leather-coated soldiers, their priest companion and the native servant stopped awhile to stretch their legs and barter food at a poor village. The missionary, mildly drunk, was still able to talk with the village elder in Bay area pidgin. The man had apparently seen nothing.
Private Rodrigo played with the kids. They got him into line with them in the field and passed a rawhide ball from one to the next, then faster, then two lines formed and raced to see who was fastest. They laughed; he laughed; no one used words, but cheered and yelled and slapped each other’s back.
It turned into tag and racing through the woods. The Miwok kids were quick as deer and knew the paths, but Rodrigo’s heart made up the gap.
A child yelled when a molting yellow Grizzly charged. Rodrigo shouted and raced forward, waving his arms. The bear broke his shoulder with the first swipe, then bounced down on him with both front paws, breaking ribs.
The village dogs and kids, the rest of the Spanish patrol came running at his screams. Private Joaquin raised his rifle. Corporal Garcia pushed the gun aside.
“You’ll only wound it,” said the corporal.
Private Olugio fired into Rodrigo’s head above the ear. His scream cut off. His left hand stopped clawing the ground. The percussion froze the bear for a moment; the dogs rushed in.
Dancing and snapping, the skinny curs of the village harassed the confused Grizzly until he backed away and left toward the forest.
As his men rushed to Private Rodrigo, bleeding and twisted, Corporal Garcia shouted: “Murder and directly disobeying a superior!” Corporal Garcia was outraged, but confident. “Joaquin, Pepe, arrest Private Olugio at once. Remove his weapons and tie his hands. Someone tell these heathen to find Private Rodrigo’s horse. And call the priest.” No one left Rodrigo or even looked in Garcia’s direction. They lifted Rodrigo sadly to their shoulders and let themselves be led by the children to the village.
Four days after the death of Private Rodrigo, the four remaining Spanish soldiers of the Bodega patrol had grudgingly but dutifully, followed Corporal Garcia to the westernmost coast of the headlands. From a hill a few miles north of the Bodega community, they had been watching foreigners. A palisade had taken shape around a group of buildings; additional tents and native huts filled a field nearby. They had noticed an organized competence, unlike the chaotic procedures of their own Presidio. The Russians were good-humored, even obviously warm, with their countrymen and civil, not at all unkind, with the natives. They liked to eat and drink. They liked music and almost all played instruments. Officers had fancy housing and married couples were separated from singles. There were apparently already mixed marriages (or at least convenient alliances) between merchant workers and native women. Maybe it was hard to feel threatened because it wasn’t a military group they were watching.
A small group of short, ugly aboriginals kept to themselves after arriving on a schooner from the south, but seemed well treated. It was impossible to discern their tribe. The natives of the village outside the fort were mostly Koshaya Pomo, but included individuals from tribelets up the Coast, judging by clothing, as well as many Bay Miwok of Bodega, maybe even mountain Miwok and Yokuts. This place prospered. There was even a windmill for grinding grain. And metal work. And stores of manufactured goods.
They were discovered during a lapse in vigilance. From his horse, a happy, well-fed Russian, with a magnificent beard and moustache and passable Spanish skills, had offered them their annual salary each month to learn to be merchants. None of the Spanish military in Alta California had been paid in nearly 8 months and even then only got a tithe toward what it was owed. And the Russian could probably back up his offer. The men were tempted. After all, below them on a point of land, an actual fort had taken shape. “Rossia”, he called it.
So tempted. Back at their base at San Rafael, near San Francisco Bay, their colleagues still lived in tule huts, helping to build the new fort like miserable natives, when they weren’t out freezing their asses off, scouting. Pants and tunics were in rags, patched over and over. Since they had to fight the cold and damp of autumn, stepping in and out of marshy ground, rot attacked their feet constantly. This seal-skin-booted Cossack offered them housing, hearth fires and winter clothing like his.
Very tempted. Red-faced at his own weakness, Corporal Rafael Garcia intervened. He yelled at the Russian: “Go back to your fort, you mackerel peddler. Go back to the Czar, you money-grubbing meddler. Go back to your country, before we make you swim home. You can kiss our horses’ behinds, you snake. A son of Spain is not for sale. You men mount up.”
Bravely spoken, thought Olugio, as he planted his feet for action. Nodding at Joaquin and Pepe, he grabbed the Corporal’s right arm from behind and twisted it up between his shoulder blades. Driving with his feet, he brought the Corporal face first onto the pine needle strewn ground and landed on him with a thud. Garcia screamed once and bit off his cry.
Joaquin gathered up his superior’s weapons, but Olugio said: “Wait a bit. Let’s leave him something. It’s a long way back.”
So they chose to leave his sword, which they left across his lap. His hands, behind him, encircled the trunk of a tree in a reverse bear hug, bound.
The Russian led his three new employees and their four horses back to Fort Ross where they could wash up, eat, drink, and begin their language lessons.
Garcia considered his situation like the most detached tactician:
He was alive, bleeding a bit from forehead and cheek.
His arms were tied tightly behind him awkwardly.
The joints of his right arm and some ribs complained loudly.
He was thirsty and without water.
His sword lay across his lap, unusable.
His horse was gone.
The missionary would reach the rendezvous with his servant by noon tomorrow, three hours away on foot.
The construction camp at San Raphael was two days forced march away.
In the distance, the two-masted schooner was just leaving Fort Ross, deck piled with hides and furs.
His men could probably say “vodka” and “beet soup” and “piss on Spain” in passable Russian by now. He was alone. He would give no thought to revenge. He was alive. There would be time for revenge.
He tested the knots that held him, but he found his wrists had been lashed and didn’t flex at all. Even if he twisted to the point of dislocating his shoulders it was unlikely to free him at the wrists. The tree was so big it didn’t taper at all for 30 feet, so no slack would come from trying an agonizing climb. The bones of his wrists and hands were the weak link; if he broke or dislodged them, he might be able to slide free. Was there an alternative? The sword!
If he could dig a hole with his heel…
If he could get the hilt of his sword jammed into the hole…
If he didn’t knock it over rotating his body to the other side of the tree…
If he could center the blade on the ropes…
A thought raced through the fortified perimeter of his mind: I could probably fix the point of the blade below my throat.
Suddenly, his clear analysis became certain defeat. He would starve and die at this tree and the wolves would eat him. He would pull his hands out in a pulpy mess and be an invalid and a joke the rest of his life if he lived. If he did kill himself, he would be damned and lose both his body to the beasts and his soul to the devil.
Groaning almost mutely and sweating an acidic stinking sweat, Garcia saw the devil roll the door away from the cave leading to Hell and grin a yellow-toothed grin that sampled his flesh and found it tasty.
“My God! Rafael cried. “Save me! Holy Mother, save me!”
Suddenly his hands dropped to the ground at his sides as a blade cut the ropes between his wrists. Olugio’s face appeared from behind the tree and frowned at him. The private kicked the sword away.
“Strasvi, Corporal Garcia, strasvi! That’s Russian. I’ve been watching you for awhile. I’ve been a scout so many seasons now, it’s the way I am. And I saw something interesting this time. You can cry! I had no idea you were so afraid of trees. Honestly, you make me glad of my recent choices.” Olugio squatted facing his superior.
“Do you recall the recruiting patrol we made for the mission last year, across the Sacramento River, Corporal? Down toward Turtle Island? We brought the big group of native women and youngsters all the way back to Dolores.”
“Rodrigo was with us. Do you remember? Of course, you do. He was making up his own names for all the different kinds of birds. I’ll never again see an owl without thinking of the Archbishop.”
Olugio stood with his back against the tree while Garcia struggled to get blood and feeling back into his leaden arms.
“What did you say on the way here, after he died? ‘At least he could have died like a man’.”
Olugio waited for a reply he knew wasn’t coming.
“I’m not your executioner. You didn’t even spare poor Rodrigo a bullet. If it wasn’t for the local dogs driving the bear away, we wouldn’t have even retrieved his body.”
“The Holy Mother saved you today, by reproaching me. Maybe memory of your own panic will redeem your heart. I doubt it. If you live to see Lt. De Reche, you had better tell him we are dead, so as not to look for us, or I promise that every uniformed Spaniard in California will hear the story of you losing the battle with this tree.”
Olugio strode to his horse and cantered away without looking back.
Garcia regained his feet and considered again the option of falling on his sword. The recent image of the Adversary with yellow fangs and the smell of that open pit He guarded turned his thoughts back toward living.
As he began the long walk back to camp, he tried to frame the report he would make to the Lieutenant. There were at least one hundred of them, all Miwok, I think, from several villages. They killed Pepe from hiding, and then attacked from all sides. The men fought bravely, but had no chance. They’ve probably eaten the horses by now.
He stopped walking. Strasvi, he thought. Strasvi. The language didn’t sound too difficult. No, he had missed that chance.
The redwoods towered above him. He shuddered a bit in the fog that had settled in. He thought wistfully of his previous posting in Baja California as a private, bored and sweating, without another care.
He tried to keep his eyes on the trail and out of the trees and plodded on.
Garcia found the native woman feeding the evening fire and Brother Amoroso sitting on a nearby rock, wrapped in a mission blanket. A green glazed cup was at his feet, a bottle nearby. Yellow light from the fire played with the shadows on the canvas tents. The trees around them grew and shrank with the wavering flame.
The missionary looked up. “Did you bring game?” he asked.
Garcia shivered as he embraced the fire; he would have sat on its lap, if he could. He shook uncontrollably now. His jaw chattered.
“N-n-no food,” he said.
Gradually, he told his story.
The priest was terrified. “Are they out there? Were you followed? What about us? Should we leave now? Why did they let you go? Should we put out the fire? Are they coming?”
The woman added some round cooking stones to the fire, since she would be cooking mush.
“Corporal, are we safe here?” said the priest.
Garcia saw that the priest was convinced and not inclined to administer the sacraments to bodies surrounded by savage killers. The soldier began to see an additional possibility emerging from this chaos.
Garcia was actually a careful, smart old dog, in planning, if not in action. When he was reasonably sure he’d reached his goal, he’d guard it, step away from it and circle it, see if anyone else was chasing it, make sure he still wanted it. He had learned by watching his disgraced father that achieving one’s goals and actually winning something he desired, sometimes changed a man. Changed his world. Sometimes in unexpected ways.
“They will not follow us,” he said. “But I think we ought to demand their repentance with soldiers and neophyte-baptized natives from San Jose and the Presidio at Dolores. I can bring these cowards in for confession or meet their refusal with punishment,” he said.
The woman handed them portions of smoked fish.
The priest stood still, clutching his blanket in front of his neck, studying a shadow shape in the trees to see if it was the enemy.
When the time was right, Sergeant Garcia, promoted for his bravery in action on the headlands of Tamalpais, led a group of soldiers and armed natives to a Yurok village northeast of St. Rafael. In the battle, with musket, saber and small cannon, two hundred surprised natives were killed, thirty-four of them armed with bows and hunting arrows. The remainder were women, children and the elderly. Sixteen teenagers, mostly girls, were brought back, tied together in a forced march of three days. There were no other survivors of the village.
His superiors promised him another raise and some fabric for a new uniform.
Published in anthology here: 6-9-2011