Thursday, June 30, 2016

Johnson’s Ranch Picnic

Thanks to those of you who responded to my request for feedback on THE ZOZOBRA INCIDENT cover. Most of you liked it. So do I.

This week, I want to do a short story, so let’s get right to it.
I’m not really a loner, but on occasion, I like to take off into the wilds by myself and commune with the environment without interference from other human beings. Can’t always get away with that, of course; mankind’s left traces of himself all over the landscape. We’re litterbugs even when we pick up behind ourselves. We leave our roads and trails and tumbledown buildings strewn all over the countryside.
On an early morning in March, I loaded up my brand new 2012 Jeep Wrangler and, looking for road miles to complete breaking in the motor, headed straight up I-25 toward Santa Fe. Round-trip, that would give me at least 120 highway speed miles to add to the 385 already on the odometer. The mountain roads I’d tackle in between would be icing on the cake.
Without a clear destination in mind, I bore east at the City Different and followed the old Santa Fe Trail into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A complex of what looked to be church buildings drew me off the highway, but I wasn’t looking for the company of pastors, so I drove a tangle of logging roads back into the countryside. When I found traces of a couple of buildings in a small vale, I decided this was a good place to have lunch and grab some zzzs.
My Garmin GPS and an old fashioned paper map told me I had elected to stop in someplace called Apache Canyon and made reference to a ranch. It looked as if I was going to have my solitary picnic at the site of the old Johnson’s ranch and stage station. I was right smack in the middle of the old Santa Fe Trail, a portion that hadn’t yet been paved.
Donning a windbreaker against the brisk mountain air, I located a small depression what would make a good after-lunch resting place, ate my two chicken salad sandwiches with mustard potato salad—the entire meal garnished with baby carrots, green onions, and red grapes.
My belly full, I put away the plastic plates and tablecloth in the basket from which they came and lay back against the gentle incline behind me to stare up at a clear blue New Mexico sky with a few dark clouds hanging around in the west. Towering pines and firs shadowed my peripheral vision. A hawk of some kind wheeled high above me, and a crow cawed from the nearby forest. The scent of wild flowers drifted in on the breeze, and I spent a few minutes trying to identify them before squirming into a more comfortable position against the firm earth as a prelude to drifting off to sleep.
I woke to a burst of noise. Loud cursing and the sound of protesting mules. Startled, I opened my eyes and sat up. Below me in the bole of the small valley, I was astonished to see a long train of mule-drawn wagons. Men rushed around tightening leather here, feeding oats to animals there, tying down canvas, and attending a host of minutiae. Others gathered in small groups to talk and smoke. Their laugher sometimes sounded akin to the braying of jackasses.
Although tempted to rise and find out what was going on, something held me back. An old tintype quality hung in the atmosphere. The gray of the men’s clothing wasn’t true. The timbers and stone and adobe of the main house and something that reminded me of a stage station were off.  Unreal. Surreal.
Sudden pandemonium broke out as mounted men broke from the trees on my high side and thundered down on the surprised group at the ranch house. Guns blazed. The men in gray milled about ineffectually, as the blue horde rode down on them. Men fell. Blood spurted. Animals shrieked and dropped in their traces. Mules penned in corrals panicked and trampled one another to death.
Shock passed and fear seized me. Sudden perspiration stained my windbreaker. My hands shook as if palsied. I crouched in my depression but was unable to resist peeking over the edge of the embankment. My Jeep was mere feet away. But even as I contemplated seeking its cover, a troop of men, some firing weapons from the saddle, others brandishing wicked-looking sabers pounded straight toward me. One passed right through my red vehicle as if it weren’t there. I flattened against the earth as horses leapt my hiding place on their way to the wagon train.
Shaking with terror, I hid in my hole, eyes squeezed shut tightly as the sounds of battle gradually diminished, giving way to the occasional roar of rifles and pistols as if some sort of ritual execution were taking place. Sensing movement, my eyes popped open.
I was no longer alone. A young man shared my hiding place. He had lost his cap and his weapon, but his proximity gave me understanding denied me before. His uniform was gray… Confederate gray. It would not have been difficult to imagine him in other circumstances standing tall and proud and defiant, but now he was frightened into near paralysis. His straw pile hair gave him the look of a panicked scarecrow. He bled at the shoulder.
“Oh, lord, oh lord. Ain’t nothing left. Col. Scurry’s done for. We all done for. Slough’ll be all over us now.”
The sound of that young voice shook me out of my lethargy. “Who’s Scurry? Who’s Slough? Is this a Civil War enactment? If so it’s—”
He hissed through thin lips as a group of four men—Union soldiers by the look of them—made their way up the hill, pausing to examine an occasional body. When they arrived at the depression, my companion managed to rise to his knees.
“Don’t shoot, sir. Please! I give up. I'm Private Joe Bob Dalton, sir.”
A hard-looking sergeant stared at him without an ounce of mercy in his flinty eyes. “What’s your unit, son?”
“S-second Texas Mounted Rifles, sir.”
Without another word, the Yank lifted his pistol and fired. I nearly fainted as I stared into the boy’s dead eyes. Blue. With sandy lashes.
Fearful I was about to draw my last breath, I managed to lift my gaze. The sergeant and his men had turned and walked away without taking notice of me. I slumped back against the earth and closed my eyes against the horror I’d just witnessed.
A loud crash brought me to consciousness. A cannon shot? Something struck my face. I opened my eyes to discover the cloud bank hovering on the far horizon had moved over us. Lightning struck a tree uphill of me, sparking a brief fire before the pelting rain arrived to douse it. I struggled to my feet, almost afraid to look at the dead private who shared my hideout. Except he wasn’t there. A dark smudge tinted the far side of the depression, but there was no corpse. They had taken him away. Exposed to the drenching rain, I stood and looked over the landscape. There were no wagons. No mules. No soldiers. No farmhouse or stage station. I was alone, soaked to the bone and shivering from fear and more confused than I’d ever been.
After grabbing my picnic basket, I climbed out of the depression and slogged my way to the jeep. Uncaring that muddy water fouled the seats and pooled on the floorboard, I crawled into the vehicle, threw it into four-wheel-drive, and made my slow, uncertain way back to the highway. My mind buzzing with questions and impressions and recollections was a hazard to my driving, but I made it back to sunny Albuquerque safely.
After a long, hot shower, I sat down at my computer and began a Google search. Once I recalled the area was called Glorieta Pass, I began to make progress. That had been the site of the seminal battle of the Civil War in New Mexico. Lt. Col William Read Scurry marched up out of Confederate Arizona, took Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and was approaching Glorieta Pass with his contingent of Texas and Arizona troops and a bunch of irregulars—which I read as freebooters. After pushing Col John P. Slough’s battalions, mostly Coloradoans, back into the pass, he was well on the way to severing the mineral-rich west from the Union.
Chill bumps played up and down my arms as I read on. A column of Yankees had sneaked behind rebel lines and attacked Scurry’s supply train, destroying some eighty wagons and killing or scattering five hundred or so draft animals. Scurry quickly went from winning the battle to losing the war. Without supplies, he retreated back to southern New Mexico and into Arizona. That battle broke the back of the Confederate war effort in the west.
The raid on the supply train had been made at a place called Johnson’s Ranch on March 28, 1862. My eyes slid to the calendar on my desk. Exactly 150 years ago… today.
Had there been a young private from San Antonio named Joe Bob Dalton among the waggoneer’s that long ago day? I searched for his name… in vain.

I hope you enjoyed this little bit of prose. As always, you can contact me at

New Posts published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

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