Strange Falling Out Among Relatives
The rumor sifted up out of the layers that settle on the muddy bottom of the lake of time. In the 1940s, two families, the Brightwells and the Touchstones lived across a vivid lake from each other, each with seven children. The oldest two, Autumn Apple–she was a Brightwell–and Cougar Blue, a Touchstone, married.
But apparently there were a few other connubial pairings going on in the many secret love bowers afforded by the almost grotesquely lush vegetation surrounding the sparkling green eye of the lake.
Great Grandma Brightwell let it slip before she died that the family of Autumn Apple and Cougar Blue had a double cousin, a child born of two younger siblings, Unholy Annie and Bear in the Air (so called because he was very light on his feet), a child born in secret, given away and forgotten.
Why fifty years later did this rumor or remembrance bubble to the surface like gasses released from organic matter decomposing at the bottom of the lake?
Or was it a collective dream they were all slowly swimming through like green bottle glass? Because with strange inevitability, the adopted child, Angelica, now in her late fifties, began her search for her roots and found the Brightwells to glad cries of reunion and jubilation by her newfound cousins.
The Touchstones grew angry at the accusations that Bear in the Air might be the father of this sudden stranger in their midst. “You are slandering the good name of our brother, father, grandfather!” Dragging his name through the mud.
However, these are modern times, and the DNA test proved negative for Bear in the Air’s possible paternity. It was Angelica’s mom’s husband all along.
Yet that wasn’t the point to the Touchstones, and that side of the combined family withdrew without discussion or confrontation. The outward silence was inwardly fueled by gossip until the imagined slight achieved the status of epic insult.
This peculiar boulder lodged in the streambed of the once freeflowing river of the Brightwells and Touchstones, the extended two family family.
It was twenty-four months before the four Brightwell sisters found out about the silence they had suspected but only recently confirmed.
One night, they began to text each other, brainstorming a solution. A letter of apology? A phone call? The texts flew back and forth until they had woven a kind of counter-dream that floated above them all, misted out over the lake, the mountains and over the Touchstones, too.
That night, each Brightwell sister dreamed of speaking to a Touchstone uncle. In the dreams, barriers fell; the old camaraderie returned.
In every dream, the dreamers walked by that shimmering lake, and the overgrown leaves and branches reached out to brush their backs, their shoulders, to tangle briefly in their hair.
They passed through the old love bowers and finally came to the shore. They stood together on the wooden dock, looking out across green water.
It was so deep and so still.
For today’s Daily Create, we were given this image of a worker’s hands and asked to write a story about them. This story has been cross-posted from my Tumblr blog, Sandy Springs Eternal.
Some orienting notes: Today’s Daily Create presented an interestingly distorted map of the Oregon Territory circa 1841, just at the beginning of the wagon train migration. We were asked to write the beginning of a story that could have happened at one of the place names. My entire life and the lives of five generations of relatives are woven into the history of the place names on that map, so I felt a little dizzy trying to think about that.
Wondering what others had done, I wandered over to the blog post of Jim Groom. He had picked up on the Shasta region of northern California and gotten waylaid by the story of the legendary horse thief, Joaquin Murrieta.
As I wrote on Jim’s blog, “At one time in my life when I lived in the old inn at Glen Ivy Hot Springs, which is a geologic sister to Murrieta Hot Springs, out on 15 between Corona and Temecula (back road to San Diego), I became obsessed for a while with the origins of a nearby road called Horse Thief Trail. Local rumor had it that the horse thief in question was Joaquin Murrieta, but that turned out not to be true. However, my research on him turned out to be borderline obsessive, and I wrote a researched based fiction piece that sorted out the local pieces and retold the story.”
I hadn’t looked at this story since 2005, so I printed out a copy and read it–and I’m posting it here as its first publication and exposure to the public eye, assuming anybody will bother to read a 5000 word story in this age of quick mind munching.
I was amazed at how much accurate detail I managed to pack into it: the Luiseno cremation rituals, their creation story, the fire up Coldwater Canyon and the story of the last grizzlies in California; too, all the researched details of the Murrieta family, from the color of his hair (blond) to the true story of his final death and the secret interment ceremony; the origin of place names–it’s all woven in.
A YouTube recording of “The Corrido of Joaquin Murrieta” is posted at the end.
So my Daily Create today is to revisit my own passions about the West as it time shifted through the canyons walls of my home place. If you actually read the story, I would love to hear from you in the comments–and thank you ahead of time!
The Coldwater Corrido of Joaquin Murrieta
Glen Ivy Hot Springs can be seen from Highway 15 between Corona and Lake Elsinore if you’re headed down to San Diego on the inland route. You’ll see the exit sign to Horse Thief Road, but the real story begins one exit back, where Temescal Canyon Road winds up to the Hot Springs. In the old days, this was my country, and I roamed the Santa Ana hills and the archives room at the Corona Library like a native.
I loved most the sharp contrast between the hot desert of the open hillsides and the sudden cool of Coldwater Canyon that put the “glen” in Glen Ivy. There are a hundred songs to be sung about this country, but I always liked one I heard in the migrant camps, “The Coldwater Corrido of Joaquin Murrieta.” It retells the story of the famous horse thief chased by officers of the law up Coldwater Canyon.
The legendary Murrieta knew these mountains were crosshatched by Luiseno trails. Horse Thief heads up the ridgeline to the top of Santiago Peak, but it branches off down other ridgelines. I have wandered these trails, thinking about Murrieta and his brothers, their violent past, their heroic system of driving horses 800 miles down California, across the desert to Arizona and Mexico along the road they called “La Vereda Caballo.” During the chase scene in the 1840s, the Luisenos with their cremation rituals would still have been where Glen Ivy is now, and the generations of chocolate-colored grizzlies still living and breeding in Coldwater Canyon, both surviving the cyclic wild fires and flood.
It is easy in the full moonlight to imagine Joaquin Murrieta, known as El Famoso in his own lifetime, riding out into the dim basin of moonlight in that opening between the canyon and plain. His half-brothers, Joaquin Manuel and Jesus Feliz, would be riding behind him to the left and right of the herd. The Luiseno, Pautovak, who had joined them two days before at Temecula, hazed mustangs from the rear. The horses snorted, moved sideways across the streambed, their flesh hot from the midnight gallop uphill.
Jesus Feliz had been the lookout who had alerted them to the approaching troops. The men scattered the ashes of their fire, riding hard and fast, the fifteen extra horses running between them. The Rangers were sure they had the thieves trapped between the north and south running walls of Temescal Canyon, but Luisenos and locals knew glens cut west up the mountain, traced by grizzly bear trails hundreds of years old.
Joaquin Murrieta swung to the ground, the down-canyon breeze telling him Coldwater Glen was directly ahead. Horses’ hooves sloshed up the deep groove of the channel; the horses sucked and blew at loose, starlit current.
Joaquin clambered the glen wall with both hands, reaching for toeholds with his leather boots. He was up in one quick scramble, jumping to get out of the way as Mozo’s hooves slid and pawed for purchase, the powerful haunches propelling him up over the waterfall into the dark protection of the canyon.
From the top of the falls, Joaquin could see the torches of the infantry. Bright moonlight gleamed on muskets; the sounds of wagon mules and shod riding horses rose on the night air. He considered the path ahead. Pautovak would help him find the grizzly trail he remembered from years ago, then to the summit of Santiago, down Trabuco Canyon, circle around east to pick up El Camino del Diablo, the so-called “Devil’s Road,” south over the border to La Berruga to sell the horses in Mexico.
“Joaquin Manuel,” he whispered to his brother, who was kicking water off his boot, “do you smell anything?”
“Smoke. From the rancheria?” He nodded his head toward the Luiseno village of Temescal not far from the troops.
Joaquin shook his head, “I don’t think so, the breeze is down canyon.”
Jesus Feliz muttered from behind where his deep-chested bay shouldered them all into motion, “Fire above, Rangers behind, grizzly bear wherever she hides on a moonlit night–it’s the devil’s choice, boys. Andale arriba and let the devil take the hindmost.”
They rode in the creek itself as the granite walls inhaled and exhaled. When they found a ridge angling out of the canyon, up they went, nineteen horses lunging, slipping, excited by the hard pace, the urgent air of the caballeros who hiss-whispered them up onto the ridge trail. From there, they picked up the old grizzly trail. It was still difficult going, but grizzlies traverse their own trails precisely, placing each foot in the same place each time they pass, so the trail was a foot deep in some sections. The chaparral on either side was impenetrable, so the horses moved along single-file. At twenty-five hundred feet, the trail topped a foothill ridge and leveled out onto a bench. Dry bunchgrass and oso berries made dark tufts in the moonlight. On the south side, a spring trickled over the edge, aimed for Coldwater Canyon. Joaquin held his hand up. The riders framed a semi-circle, aiming their looking and listening into canyon and outwash plain below. The troops had plainly set up camp for the night. Three fires and the sound of distant drunken laughter seeped uphill to the riders like smoke wandering through the chapparal. Pautovak pointed casually, wordlessly, so they all looked there and half-saw three riders moving out of the quarry toward the fires.
“They done laid off pursuit.”
“Looks like it.”
“Chickenshits. What kind of Rangers are them?”
“The kind that’ll shoot you in the back and ask questions later.”
“We’ll be home in La Berruga afore they sleep that snootfull off.”
“Best not tempt the devil, boys. Have a bite and ride on.”
The smell of the drifting wisps of smoke lifting up over the peak and wandering toward them grew stronger. The horses spread out, heads down, tearing at the grass. Joaquin Manuel and Joaquin, El Famoso climbed a knoll above the bench. Pautovak and Jesus Feliz sprawled on the other side of the herd. Pautovak mixed some panoli with water and sugar and passed it to Jesus; then he nodded to the horses with their fresh brands.
“Running M,” he said,” I hear that’s the brand of the Murrieta brothers.”
Jesus stretched, small and wiry, the minstrel-singer of the gang, the record-keeper. He nodded. “There’s seven Murrietas. Those two Joaquins, he jerked his head up hill, they’re half-brothers, my brothers-in-law.”
“I’ve heard of El Famoso. They say he’s a murderer, and the rest of you are, too.” In this way Pautovak invited the tale, the singing of the song, as was the way of his people, for the world is built of the stories we hear on the horse thieves trail.
Jesus shook his head.” None of the Murrietas robs stages, banks or travelers. For the most part we just round up wild horses and maybe a few others that aren’t too closely attached to their owners. Run them down to Mexico.”
“This ain’t your territory, is it? I heard you work the north end of the Great Valley, Carquinez Strait, Mount Diablo.”
“La Vereda Caballo. Eight hundred miles right down California, across the desert to Arizona and down into Mexico.”
Pautovak considered this. “That’s one hell of a trip.”
Then asked, “Why is he called El Famoso?”
The singer cannot withhold his song when the wild world demands its singing. “After his first wife died, Joaquin’s father Senor Murrieta married Senora Carrillo, and they had fourteen altogether. Two Joaquins and two Jesus’s, that’s how that happened, and we all come to California together from our home in San Jose de Guadalupe in Sonora. You understand, we’d found out the stories about gold in California was true. Joaquin Murrieta, he married my sister, Rosa, and she came, too, so I came along to see what was what in Californy. That Joaquin, you can see he’s a blondie, a lot of people down there are like that. He can speak English like a lord if he wants to, and sometimes he does, to fool people. He knows Spanish five ways to Sunday; some say he’s from Chihuahua and another will put you straight and say they rek he’s Spanish from the old country, all right.
“They had a good claim at the placer called Murphy’s New Diggin’s, but the miners, they said around they didn’t like no Mexes, but it was the rich placer they wanted up for grabs. One night, a mob of miners surrounded them. They gang raped Rosa and left her for dead. The other Jesus, not me, Jesus Carrillo Murrieta, their brother,” he nodded uphill again, “they hung from an oak tree. They tied Joaquin to the same tree and whipped him. Left all three for dead, but only Jesus Carrillo died.”
They sat in the quiet dark looking out across the Temescal spread below them. The full moon bathed the far hills in uncertain undulations of light and dark.
“After we buried Jesus Carrillo, Joaquin moved Rosa to Niles Canyon. He set up a blue tent for dealing monte down around the richest placeras in the Mother Lode—Melones, Cucumber Gulch, Carson Creek. Then dead miners began to show up; all of them dragged to death behind a horse. These were all the miners who had abused Rosa and killed Jesus; people figured that out.”
“Exactamente. That’s why they’re calling it Los Muertos now. When things got hot, Joaquin folded up his blue tent, Carpa Azul, they call it, that place down there, they call it that now, La Carpa Azul, and went to live in the caves on Bear Mountain. He’d make raids on the miners from there. He robbed them because he needed money, and he murdered them because they deserved it.”
Silence followed; the moon darkened. Jesus took off his hat and turned it in his hands. He ran his fingers through his hair, put his hat back on. “He’s got too much blood lust. We thought we’d take him home for a while. Start over again just with the horses, no more mining, no more blood. Murrietas have always run horses. That should be enough.”
Pautovak nodded. “Horses are plenty. But blood lust. That’s like too much hard liquor; it takes more than just not drinking.”
“What do you people do for a cure?”
“Sweats. Temescal, that’s what it means, not in my language but in Aztec that the Spanish brought to this place when they saw all the hot springs. Some special plants, maybe, if the man goes to a shaman. But left on its own, the man’s soul will go find an animal, and the animal will know what to do.”
They both stood and looked up toward the two Joaquins, who were themselves staring up hill. The moon was at their back, and yet the rim of the summit glowed like the sun in full eclipse. Pautovak and Jesus Feliz both ran for their mounts and swung up into the saddle. They heard behind them a sound like “Woof! Woof!” before they wheeled their horses to see two grizzly cubs charging a young mare. Pautovak shouted and the whole herd pounded into motion. The mare squealed, kicking her heels at the cubs and racing away.
“Donde’sta La Mama?” Jesus shouted.
Up on the hill, the two Joaquins whistled for their horses. Joaquin Manuel’s horse came up the hill at a cross-angle; he jumped on without aid of stirrups, plunging through the chaparral after the stampeding herd. El Famoso had one foot in Mozo’s stirrups when three hundred and fifty pounds of Mama Grizzly appeared and stood up in front of him.
Mozo screamed and reared. Joaquin held on, gaining his seat but no control as Mozo took the bit in his teeth and ran for his life, south for the cliffs of Coldwater Canyon. The female grizzly was right behind him. Horse, rider and bear went over the ravine wall. Mozo tucked head, flipped and rolled in the way horses sometimes can without breaking their legs. Flying loose of the saddle, Joaquin was a human boulder hurtling over ledges, rock falls, slick-backing through water seeps. He grabbed for bushes, but momentum ripped them out of his hands. The last fall was twenty feet straight down off a basalt column into a deep pool of Coldwater Creek. The current pushed him to the lip of the rock fall dam where he clawed for the shore.
Primordial fear slammed his entire body when he saw the chocolate-colored animal charging toward him, the feral fear an animal has when it becomes prey for a larger predator, fear that freezes and flings into motion all at once. Joaquin scrambled on all fours for the oaks, but the hulk of bear caught up with him, picked him up by the back of the neck and shook him the way a dog shakes a snake. When she dropped him, Joaquin ran at the closest oak, tearing up the first twenty feet on sheer momentum. The mother griz charged straight up the tree after him and caught his left foot. He had a bear hug on the tree, but her weight pulled him down through breaking branches. When he landed, she swatted him with her right paw, raking open his upper left thigh and knocking him back into the icy water of the pool. Her breath, hot and fetid, caught him straight in the face. The smell of my death, he thought. Mama Griz turned away, sniffing the strong smell of smoke coming down canyon. She ran back up the way she had come with the sure-footed swiftness of a woman in her own country.
When Joaquin came to, his feet were freezing and his hair was on fire. He ducked his head underwater, dousing the flames. Wedged against the rock dam, he lodged in the only place of safety in this high, narrow reach of the canyon. Fire came down both sides of the creek, fast, white and lethal through the underbrush, crowning up in the oaks as it leaped from treetop to treetop. Joaquin said to himself that he had entered another world as white and red-hot as his revenge against the miners. Their fear, their blood in the highway where he dragged them over rocks and chapparal to their deaths, was like this fire that surrounded him. Slabs of light reflected off the black pool where he floated, and the creek ran with firelight like a river of blood.
Then he saw that some of it was blood, and the blood was his blood. He remembered the bear at the same time he felt the nauseating roll of pain from his back and leg. He trembled as he looked for the bear, but he saw no sign of her.
Joaquin forced himself to slide deeper into the icy water until he floated there up to his neck, his head on a rock, the fire burning above and on all sides. Memories came to him then as he drifted, and the memories circled around that one day when his brother had been hanged. Rosa screaming and then her abrupt choke when she had suppressed her screams knowing the sound only excited the miners. He could hear her gagging, attempting to vomit as she found ways to fight but they had her, and every foul coward among them had her. Finally, only her spirit could resist them, and by that she had lived. Tied to the great oak from which his brother’s body hung, Joaquin memorized every face lurid with bloodlust, hands scrabbling at buttons to lower or raise filthy pants kneeling or unkneeling from his wife. Every face. And to every face he found a name. Ratner. Whitbread. Slathern. Recker. Nagler. Grizzell. Dworshak. Cash. And not one face now twisted in shocked disbelief or pleading for mercy to mothers of the same name as the rope settled and tightened around its neck did he fail to drag at long length behind Mozo on those black desert gallops, the human rag and bone bag streaking the sand and rock behind with gobbets the ravens loved. The ravens came to expect him, to listen for the ardent pound of Mozo’s hooves.
Usually individual faces and names of the miners stood out in his memory, but for the first time fear had driven that specificity from him. He reached again and again for the murderous feelings that usually reminded him of who he was, but could not find them. The block head of the bear would seem to appear, her broad brow, quick, intelligent eyes, the pared back mouth showing all her yellow teeth in a warning roar and the quick jerk of his heart would wake him from the dream of his life.
Joaquin watched until the fire had passed over and disappeared around the bend. Dawn light filtered through the smoking skeletons of trees. He focused painfully on the first large shape in view, and it was the grizzly and her two cubs drinking downstream. The cubs began rolling in the water while Mama moved them off down the canyon out of his sight.
Joaquin’s teeth chattered. His head swirled until he saw black shapes that may have been burned leaves falling on the pool, but he forced himself to crawl out of the water into the fine ash settling on the small gravel bar. He lay there, panting, looking down stream, but they were gone. It was a long time before he could crawl to a charred branch that had been too green to burn through. He used it as a crutch to help him to his feet, and then to help him walk, fall, crawl, hobble upstream opposite the bear family. His guns had been on his mochila saddle with its double pommel holsters; he had no weapon but retreat.
The canyon narrowed. Sometimes he hopped one-legged in the water holding on to rock walls on either side of the gorge. He stopped to tear strips from his shirt, which he wound around his leg after taking a good look. The long claw marks on the thigh were deep and ragged, but the cold water had stopped the bleeding. His calf and ankle had muscle torn loose. He knew his back had been flayed open once again, and there were deep gouges on either side of his neck where the grizzly’s teeth had grabbed and shaken. At the base of his skull he could feel where his scalp had been ripped away to the bone. He wrapped his leg tightly as he could, but his body had warmed and it immediately bled through the shirt. He continued to walk slowly upstream all morning, soaking in cold water when the blood began to flow.
His mind drifted from place to place as it hadn’t since he was a boy; the burned land gave off a hot, rancid smoke like the breath of the bear. He dreamed back the sizzle of tortillas dropping onto the comal and the way that smell mingled with hot cottonwood moving upland from the river, gathering to it the ripeness of algae baking in the sun, of horses drowsing in the riparian shade. He dreamed back the first sweet roaring of sex in the blood when he courted Rosa, how smart she was as she calculated supplies for the long trip ahead, the inevitability of their marriage, but how reluctant he had been to ask her for fear of the no. Joaquin Manuel had pretended to want her, too, to bring him to the sticking point so the wedding could happen before the trip. If he hadn’t brought her out of the civilized world to this primitive, beautiful country, she would never have had to endure what she did endure. He should have left the placera when the miners first began pressuring him. Ratner. Whitbread. Slathern. Recker.
Joaquin dropped near fainting in a pool to chill his blood.
He remembered then as the ash-laden waters of Coldwater Creek held him against a sandstone boulder, a story Pautovok had told them around the campfire the night they had first met him on the Yorba Ranch. “In the beginning,” he had said, “everything was silent and empty and the only living thing was the Great Spirit, who created two great balls who were brother and sister.
“The sister became Earth, and the brother became Sky. They had only each other in that beginning, so they were married. Mother Earth gave birth to all the beings, who were like people, and then they became animals and even trees.
“Later there was a powerful shaman named Wiyot. An evil Frog-Woman sorceress bewitched him. His people took him to different hot springs to try to cure him, but he finally died at a hot springs near here, the one we call Mumona.
“As is our way, the people wanted to cremate the body of Wiyot. They dug a shallow pit, filled it with dry juniper, and laid the body in it. However, they didn’t have any fire. There were lots of volunteers who tried to bring fire, but it was Coyote who was smart enough to find some and bring it back.
“As usual, Coyote was too late. Somebody else had invented the fire drill, started the fire, and got the cremation going. Wiyot’s body was still fresh, so his arms and legs drew up in the midst of the flames and his body writhed, turning over on hands and knees. Finally, only the heart was left in the funeral pyre. The fire tenders were poking it with long green poles to make it burn when Coyote returned with his fire. He was so angry that he ran into the cremation fire, snatched the heart and ran away.
“Wiyot’s spirit rose to the sky and became the sky and the moon. Because of Coyote, though, and the evil Frog-Woman, death came to the world. Since Wiyot’s death, every one of us has to die.”
Joaquin wondered if he were Wiyot, if he had been cremated and at the end of his journey would he rise again as a full moon? He crawled up out of the water and leaned on his stick, panting. When he looked up again he saw the cave because the trees that usually hid it from view were burned. In the cave, he thought, I will be safe and sleep and heal enough to go find Mozo and my brothers.
The cave mouth was big enough for him to hop into. Almost immediately it rounded a corner, narrowed, and began to slant up. Fifty feet inside the cave, Joaquin stood still in the darkness. He thought that the cave should be full of smoke, but a light breeze moved by his cheek. His neck and shoulders were almost immobile now from the wounds left by the bear’s canines; he needed to find a safe resting-place. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he realized the darkness was not complete. There was some paleness to the walls ahead, so he put his hands on the stone on either side of him and crouched forward. Then he had to get on his belly, but only because his leg wouldn’t endure a crawl. He pulled himself through the cave toward the source of sweet air. There must be a shaft to the surface, he figured, a way out, a path to safety.
The light brightened at the next curve, then Joaquin was blinded by sunlight. He was in a well, a place where the top of the cave had collapsed. He moved toward the light and saw a spring surrounded by reeds and three willows, all in a circle of light no more than six feet across. He dropped onto his stomach and drank deeply of the sweet water, uncontaminated by ash. Joaquin looked up and could see bunch grass around the edges of the opening to the upper world. Evidently the fire had come straight down the canyon at this point and not spread north across the hillside.
Body fear woke him, and he was on the move, scrambling for the back of the well. He saw a horizontal crack in the wall at the eight-foot level, reached for a toehold, and adrenaline pumped him over the edge. He saw the cubs romp into the well before Mama Griz, who followed with no apparent difficulty in squeezing through the tight place. Joaquin rolled twice to the back of the crack and heard another sound. He turned and saw the back end of a rattlesnake disappearing over the edge.
Mama Griz charged the wall. She stood up on both hind legs and peered in at him. They locked eyes, animal to animal. She raised one immense paw and stuck it in the crack, swiping at him. Joaquin crouched back, still a few feet out of her range. She stood taller to get more reach and swiped again, getting closer. He could see the eight-inch claws now within ten inches of his stomach—but far enough. She couldn’t reach him. He heard her roar, stomp her feet, scratch the ground; she stood up and tried again, but he was unreachable now.
Pautovak found him there two days later. He pried the 195 pound, six foot two inch blondie out of his stone womb, dragged him out of the cave, and got him across Mozo. Pautovak handled Joaquin’s body roughly to get it through the narrow gorges where Mozo could barely squeeze. The way had been burned open under the trees where they passed as if through the strange and forbidden landscape of a dream. Bear paw tracks raced away from them in the ash under the skeletons of trees, but Pautovak did not see the great bears whose ancestors, like his, had lived many generations in the heart of these mountains.
They came to the mouth of the glen at sunset. The sky bled a strange violet mist in the distance where the fire burned itself out. Mozo stepped down the quarry falls delicately, holding Joaquin’s body steady across the saddle. Pautovak led the horse downstream to his village by the hot springs. Others moved forward to help him lower his burden to the ground.
Many had worked to divert the fire from the subterranean houses and ramadas of the village, so now it stood at the edge of the burn zone. After Pautovak had eaten, he held a brief, low-voiced argument with several men. Many people left the village to gather dry chapparal and oak logs, and Joaquin’s body was carried off to a ceremonial site a quarter mile away, deep into the burn zone, up against the side of the mountain. Here an old man, with the help of two others, dug a long, shallow pit in the direction of north and south. They used sharpened sticks of sycamore to dig the pit. It soon filled with three feet of dry grass, brush and wood brought from across the creek. Joaquin was placed on the pyre, head to the north and face upward.
The old man waited until everyone had come over from the village. They sat at a respectful distance. Normally the relatives would put their backs to the fire and wail, but no one knew this man. No one had heard of cremating someone not of their own tribe, but Pautovak had said this was a great man who carried the bear spirit and whose passing must be honored in the proper way. The cremation song began, and the old man lit the pyre.
A dryness to the air fed the fire; it leaped and spread in a full circle around Joaquin. When the flames reached his body, he awoke and had no fear. He pulled himself to one foot and climbed down from the burning mass, his light eyes reflecting twin flames in the black center of his pupils so that he looked strange to them, his long blond hair, singed and twisted from now a double burning, lifting in the wind of the fire. The villagers leapt to their feet, exclaimed and pointed, talking swiftly among themselves, reminding each other of other such stories of people who arose from the cremation pyre. The old shaman and Pautovak ran to Joaquin, beating at the flames.
Pautovak said to Joaquin, “You have slept through the winter of your bad blood.” The villagers fell quiet at this speech and moved forward, reaching out to pat him gently or touch his hair. Some murmured about his wounds and returned to the village for dressings.
Joaquin would have said he felt calm at that moment, at great peace with the world, so he could not explain why he dropped to the ground and wept. The two other men let the fire in the pit burn while Joaquin wept with racking sobs on and on, until both fires consumed their fuel and banked away to embers. One of the old women came back up from the village and mixed acorn meal and chia seeds with meat broth, then cooked this mush on a flat stone over the dying cremation fire. She handed the thin cakes around to Joaquin and Pautovak and the shaman. Joaquin blew his nose on the ground, respectfully, outside the circle, then chewed the hot bread slowly and carefully, not gulping like a starved survivor. Other villagers had brought food, as well, so all of them crouched in a semi-circle in front of the fire, eating in silence, sometimes speaking about what had just happened, wondering this or that about it, already beginning to shape the story.
Joaquin stayed in the village until he could walk again. Eventually he returned to Rosita in Niles Canyon. He led the horse gangs until the famous Battle at Cantua in July 1853. It is sung in some corridos that Harry Love beheaded him at Cantua, but others say El Famoso and Joaquin Manuel buried a different brother there. It is said that then they and Rosa and Jesus Feliz arranged to leave the country with their $200,000 in gold. However, in one of the variants of the song, it is recounted that before they could leave for Mexico, officers looking for some other outlaw killed Mozo and shot El Famoso in his bad left leg. He and Joaquin Manuel were five hours from home, and he bled to death on the journey back to Niles Canyon.
They dug his grave inside the saddle room where Jesus Feliz slept and buried him under the floorboards in a secret ceremony lit by miner’s tallow candles.
Of an evening with women present, the firelight soft on the singing, thoughtful faces, the cancionero will pick out the tune on his guitar of a well-loved corrido that has Rosa marrying Joaquin Manuel, and they two disappearing into Mexico, probably Mazatlan. They make several trips back to retrieve the gold.
In no song is it sung that in 1908, Brownie, the last chocolate grizzly of Coldwater Glen, was killed in Trabuco Canyon. And no one sings a brave or defiant corrido for the Luisenos who were moved to the reservation at Pala in Pautovak’s lifetime. It is the researcher’s truth, however, that although this story contains the facts of his life, Joaquin Murrieta was never in this area. The more common criminal missing from legend is the Los Angeles area horse thief Jose Flores, who really was chased by the Rangers and the Mormons up Coldwater in a daring escape.
And what music is there in a song that tells that the water from Temescal Creek was consumed by the city of Corona, or that today, the once lush primeval breeding ground of the great California grizzly is mile after mile of gravel pits? Here is the song then: the gravel-crushing machines grind away, grind away, and they fill the valley with noise twenty-four hours a day.
The old grizzly track has grown over with chapparal, but the jeep trace to the top of Santiago Peak is still called Horse Thief Trail. There’s an exit sign off 15 between Corona and Lake Elsinore that says so. Migrant workers still live in camps near there, and sometimes you can hear them sing the Coldwater Corrido of Joaquin Murrieta.
“The Corrido of Joaquin Murrieta”
Today’s Daily Create challenge was:
I wish I knew the story behind this picture (above). It went viral in Russia a little over a year ago, but it may be much older than that.
My story based on the picture is below.
Harp of Water
By Sandy Brown Jensen
There is a bear in Gorky Park, one of the wild bears who used to be white – at least they were the night everyone saw them fall at once from the sky.
They were young spirit bears who hit the ground rolling and running, tumbling and fighting in the way brothers and sisters are said to do.
By dawn they were gone, out of the park, out of Moscow on their long migration cross-country to Siberia, where every year they were expected and greeted with a festival.
This particular year, Nikolo Rosso brought his family and traveling circus to Ludvo for the Spirit Bear Festival. They pitched their ragtag carnival outside town in the muddy tundra, creating a Spirit Bear Lane in such a way that the long line of homecoming bears would have to parade between sideshow tents, shooting booths, and open kitchen spaces.
The flame-haired Rosso women cooked seal meat and from spawn under the sharp eye of Old Lady Oleska Rosso on smoky little coal braziers. These delicacies they threw to the hungry young bears as they paraded by on the last mile of their journey to the Blackwater Sea.
They were young bears, and curious bears in those spring weeks of their migration, watched over by the great father and mother constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
One young bear did something the Spirit Bears really weren’t supposed to do, or at least never had done–he slowed down on the triumphant sweep through Nikolo Rosso’s little impromptu village to look around.
He stopped at Old Lady Oleska’s kitchen, and rather than snatching seal meat tossed to him on the run, he surprised her by sitting back on his haunches. He looked at her quietly.
She was a canny old traveler. She knew what to do because the legends and songs she had memorized when she was young told her this could happen and she must feed this suddenly special bear from her own plate.
And she readied the plate of meat, Oleska hummed. She heard a musical rumble and looked up in some surprise – the bear was humming tentatively with her. She furtively sign to Nikolo, who was doing a brisk business with the locals selling the dark hooch that gave the Blackwater Sea its name.
Out of the corner of his eye, Nikolo had been watching this bear sort himself out of the herd, and so he came cautiously over at Oleska’s motion.
“Musical bear,” Oleska whispered, and you can say she betrayed the bear who became known as Orpheus, or you can say she was just an agent of change, but a collar, some firm management, and Orpheus began a new migration with the Rosso family.
Oleska undertook his musical training. He learned to hum beautifully. In their own way, Oleska and Orpheus became friends, or perhaps she was more of a mother to him. He always had enough to eat. He was kept well-groomed as his while hair slowly changed to brown.
By day, he hummed to the villagers who came to see the traveling show, and by night his silver eyes glittered as he listened to the wild fiddlers play and watched the flame-haired girls whirl around the fire. He saw coins spin and saw the girls led one by one away into the dark of the canvas tents, but he was a bear, and none of this meant anything to him.
On one swing far to the south by the Georgian Sea, two new things entered the life of Orpheus: somewhere Oleska obtained an Irish harp, and it was she who taught him to play it.
The other wonderful thing that entered the life of the little traveling family was a new cart that Nikolo added to their caravan. This was a cart built all of glass with painted wooden shutters, so that it could be all closed up on the road.
Orpheus watched the construction of this cart with great interest. Everyone was excited, but he couldn’t figure out why. When the resident of this new cart was brought home, he was chained at the other end of the compound.
That night, Orpheus quietly slipped his collar, and in the warm moonlight of the South, he was like a large shadow moving down the backside of the tents, stepping carefully over all the guy wires, to the new cart.
Because it was warm, the painted shutters had been left down and the great glass aquarium was open to the moon and stars.
Orpheus, no longer the white Spirit Bear of his youth, but now an adult male in his rich, dark prime, stood on his hind legs to look into this marvelous thing, a tank of water. He could hear the faint motor of an aerator.
Orpheus felt his heart slow for moment when he saw the woman floating in the tank. He was afraid she was dead, the way her luminous green hair floated in the slight current. Then he saw the gills behind her ears fluttering rhythmically, and he understood she was just sleeping.
As he looked in, she came awake and looked at him with no alarm. He saw her tail then, its long, muscular length, green and silver in the moonlight.
Perhaps she looked sad; perhaps he felt happy, but Orpheus began to hum. The mermaid swam close and put both hands up to the glass to meet his enormous paws. Thus began a great friendship. Nikolo and Olesky and all the Rosso family realized this unusual love had thrown an aura of grace over there traveling show.
For years they prospered as the word ran out ahead of them of the musical bear and the mermaid. Orpheus played the harp, and the mermaid they called Rusalka would swim and tell stories with her hands and hips and eyes and graceful tail, stories of her own people, of the volcano goddess and the adventures of her younger sister and the handsome king they both loved.
No one understood her, but she danced her stories from the heart, and Orpheus loved her and told her so with this humming and his heart. Often when the moon was full, they would touch paws and hands together through the glass. He would hum, and she would sway gently to the night and the music of the bear.
These things happened long ago. Golden days go because golden days must; evil creeps out of the hills as raiding bandits. There are always betrayals, and beautiful things, if not violated, are taken away by night and released to a cold and foreign sea.
Orpheus never knew if Rusalka survived her return to the sea, but in his bear’s imagination, and in the power of his traveling heart, he held her and traced her difficult journey south ever south to warmer latitudes.
In his heart and mind, he felt when sharks would circle and held them back. He brought food to her by the power of care, and so she was sustained and nurtured until, in his mind’s eye, she was approached by others of her own kind and taken in, and she began a new life.
The carnival was in smoking ruins when he and Oleska escaped from the high-pitched screams of the bandits wheeling their horses through tattered tents with their long streamers of fire.
The two old friends wandered across the vast depths of Russia for a few more years. Orpheus would hum songs he learned from Rusalka, and the very very old woman would play the harp for seal meat and bits of bread.
One very cold night, the two slept curled up together. But in the morning, Oleska did not awake. Villages took her away and shooed Orpheus along. He began his long mindless rambling across the landscape.
One night, when he saw the lights of Moscow in the distance, he rested. By pale dawn light, he saw a long line of young white bears coming toward him. He watched as they passed by, then followed their trail in the snow back to Gorky Park.
As always, the people fed him there, and he hummed to the people and played his harp until they turned away with a sudden urgent anxiety for their loved ones. Mothers looked for their children and estranged lovers sought each other among the trees.
He played his harp in Gorky Park until his parents in the wheeling constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor came around again. They looked down and heard him play until their hearts broke with pity, and they brought him home to take his rightful place among the stars.
The Night the Cruise Ship Caught Fire, I Found Two Three-toed Sloths on the Beach