Chapter III. Of what Befell Us under the Rock of Acoma, and how We Turned Cliff Dwellers

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter II. Of Acoma, Pueblo of the Sky; How Edward Hunt Found Us Lodgings There; and of the Fiesta of San Esteban Next: Chapter IV. Of the Pueblos of the Railroad Side, Laguna and Isleta, and how Manuel Carpio Sang in the Sun

[page 32]

IN quest of a new experience, we took a hint from a band of Navajos who had encamped among some rocks islanded in the plain a quarter of a mile or so from the foot of the Acoma cliffs, and when they struck camp on the night of the fiesta, we moved down. To watch our goods for us during absences from our camp and to bring us water, the redoubtable Edward secured us the services, at the stipend of a dollar a day, of one Carlitos, an Acoma man who was admittedly ignorant of English—but held to be very honest.

Night had fallen when Carlitos, having brought down our last bundle from the pueblo, bade us adios. The moon, shining amid cloud drift, revealed far out on the plain the outlines of the Bedouin cavalcade of departing Navajos cantering into the desert, and gave us fitful light as we

[page 33]

spread our blankets and set our sky-roofed house in order. We had a small alcohol lamp, which we lighted to boil water for a cannikin of tea, and opening a tin of sardines and a box of crackers, we prepared to discuss a bit of supper before turning in.

Suddenly the quiet was disrupted by a blood-chilling yell, which rose from behind a gigantic rock close by. The can-opener dropped from my nerveless fingers, and Sylvia's face blanched. Then another scream, nearer and, if possible, more demoniac, and before we could form a connected theory as to what the fearful outcry meant, there staggered into a strip of moonlight before us a Navajo crazy with whiskey. He was too blind drunk to see us and plunged stumbling past us down to the edge of some rocks, where we dimly made out the figure of an Indian woman, gaunt and black, holding two ponies. Stopping the reeling man, she succeeded in steering him to one of the horses and got him into the saddle. Then, mounting the other herself, the two rode off at a mad run, side by side, he still whooping devilishly at intervals, and the silently steadying him with one hand, until, to our intense relief, the night swallowed

[page 34]

them up. It was our first experience of the wretched aftermath of many Indian fiestas, when whiskey is apt to be smuggled in by boot-leggers.

But there was more to come. Hardly had the crazy yelling died away in the distance, when we heard the clatter of hoofs, and where the woman had been, three horsemen now were reining in their broncos. They, too, we could see, were Navajos, and to our discomfort were looking intently our way. They hallooed something we did not understand, and then two, dismounting, walked rather unsteadily towards us. Stepping close to us, they evilly surveyed our little tenderfoot camp, with its cots and alcohol lamp and all, and muttered something among themselves in their pagan jargon.

Though our hearts thumped unmercifully, I am inclined to think we outwardly bore ourselves tranquilly. I know Sylvia, arranging crackers on a tin plate, was as composed as Werther's Charlotte spreading bread and butter.

Then the less drunk of the two growled out something that sounded like "Navajo John."

‘‘Well, Navajo John,’’ said I, putting up a bold front, "what do you want?"

[page 35]

‘‘Navajo John?’’ he repeated, interrogatively this time, I noticed, and making an ugly drunken lunge forward with a heavy emphasis on the John.

‘‘He means,’’ said Sylvia, ‘‘are the Navajes gone. Oh, do tell him that they are!’’

I did, in English, in Spanish, and in an attempt at the sign language, pointing out the direction they had taken.

By this time, however, the red brethren we more interested in us and our camp than in pursuing their departed company. The light of the alcohol lamp attracted their bleary gaze and had to be maundered over between them, one of them skeptically thrusting his finger into the tenuous flame before believing in the power of its heat. They fingered our soft down quilts with a kind of awe, and they tripped over the hidden leg of one of the cots, and that had then to be looked critically into. Thinking to hasten their departure, Sylvia plied them with soda-crackers, and if it had not been for the third man with the horses, who now began hallooing to them out of the intermittent moonlight, they would have probably spent the night with us. As it was, they yielded

[page 36]

at last to their comrade's importuning, and motioning for soda-crackers for him, they at last made off.

‘‘And now,’’ said I, as the trio galloped away, ‘‘we'll do what the Pueblos have had to do from the dawn of time, because of these pestiferous Navajos; we'll turn cliff dwellers.’’

While there had still been daylight, I had noticed high up in the face of a cliff near us, which was a spur of the Acoma Mesa, a shallow cave, half hidden behind a great boulder. A sand dune had formed below it and drifted gradually upward till its summit flowed into the cave and rendered the latter easily accessible. One camping there would have a wide outlook over the plain and at the same time be remote from the pathway of travel to and from Acoma. Thither with small labour we quickly transported our blankets, our cots, and ourselves, leaving other things to be looked after by Carlitos when he should arrive in the morning; and settling down behind our bulwark boulder, we sought sleep. It was a troublous night, however; for although no more Navajos came in the flesh to disturb us, our excited fancies persisted in filling the rocky space with their

[page 37]

skulking forms and the echoes of their fiendish yells; and when the stars faded in the white dawn, our eyes were still unshut.

We had, however, unwittingly stumbled upon the most enjoyable way of "doing" Acoma. An ancient church balcony, though enclosed by a genuine antique hand-carved rail, and with the Governor's niece to serve you with water in a decorated Indian jar, is undeniably romantic; but it is, strictly speaking, more of a stage property than a permanent apartment for light housekeeping. It is, besides, very public. But camping as we now did, with Carlitos on guard by day and our cliff chamber to sleep in by night (for the disturbing spectres did not come again), we had all the privacy we wanted, could mount the trail to the village whenever we so desired, and at the same time saw some phases of the happy life of the Land of the Terraced Houses which otherwise we should have missed.

Now, for the first time, we came to know the spell of the Enchanted Mesa, silhouetted against the sky four miles away and melting from colour to colour in the changing lights of the day's progress—now clothed in indescribable tones of pink,

[page 38]

of red, and yellow, and again, when storm clouds hovered over it, paling to an unearthly white. The changes were often in the twinkling of an eye. We would avert our faces for a moment, and when we looked again, a new glory dwelt there. Most enchanting was the Mesa when invested in the delicate hues of dawn, those evanescent tints which, born of the sun, cannot look on their lord and live—prophets of his coming who perish in his ineffable presence. Every morning as we looked towards the flushing east from our gate in the cliff, our hearts sang an involuntary jubilate, and we could not wonder that the Pueblos regard the sun as the house of the Divine. Sun-worship seems one of the most natural of religions and it is no credit to our "advanced" civilisation that we have ceased to pray at every dawn and to marvel at the fresh miracle of the sunrise.

With the dawn, too, the birds which shared our cliff with us, waked, and after divers sleepy chirpings, flew abroad to the business of their day; certain nervous little animals in grey coats, that we knew not, peered out from behind stones and rocks and scampered away in the sands, and Brother Coyote, far out on the flowery plain, yelped his matin notes just as he did in the youth of the world when he and the Pueblo folk spoke one tongue.

Great Rock of Acoma from the north-east. Sky-line of Acoma pueblo at right of middle notch.

[page 39]

With the risen sun, Acoma men, singly or in pairs, afoot or ahorseback, would come by on their leisurely way to the corn-fields in the plain. Often, as they went, their joy in the morning would find vent in songs, quaint, aboriginal melodies pitched high, almost like Swiss yodels, one strain repeated over and over. Descending to our Navajo rocks for breakfast, we would find Carlitos sitting by the bucket of fresh water which he had just brought, enjoying his matutinal cigarette. Carlitos' stock of English, as has been stated, was negligible. In fact, it consisted, so far as we could ascertain, of "Hello!" picked up from the courteous diction of the frontier white population, and "Yes," which complaisant monosyllable we found he was prone to use so indiscriminately as to be a pitfall to English-speaking inquirers who did not know his ways. Like most New Mexican Pueblos, however, he knew Spanish, and it was thus we communicated with him. And so we would say to Carlitos, seated by the bucket, ‘‘Buenos dias, ’’and he would smilingly reply,

[page 40]

‘‘Buenos dias, ’’and the intercourse of the day was pleasantly begun.

Our camp was a feature that attracted all passers-by, and there was none who did not call on us. Our first visitors were two old men in flapping cotton pantaloons and moccasins. They were en route for wood and rabbits, for one bore an axe on his shoulder and the other had a bow and a quiver full of arrows slung at his back. They shook hands all around and, without further formality, sank on their haunches like Orientals; then, rolling a cigarette apiece, they proceeded to gossip with Carlitos in the soft tones which the Pueblo religion teaches that the gods commend not only in women but in men also. After a decent length of time, they rose to go, when their keen eyes spied one of Sylvia's water-colour drawings, representing a street in Acoma. They caught it up eagerly, and hung over it for a long time, oh-ing and ah-ing, tracing the lines of the houses with their pointing fingers, disputing together apparently about certain features which were not clear to them; and ending up with a laugh all around, they departed in high good humour. When we sought to learn from Carlitos what the

[page 41]

turmoil all meant, he mildly observed that they thought the picture "mucho bueno." The pictures, indeed, were a drawing card with all our visitors, but even more astonishing than pictures was a nickel-plated collapsible cup, the fame of whose magical way of appearing and disappearing spread abroad. Perhaps it will be incorporated in Acoma traditions and some twenty-fifth century folklorist will think he has found in the story of it another moon eclipse- or sun-myth.

It was interesting to us to note in all our Indian callers what we afterwards found to be characteristic of unspoiled Pueblos—that they never begged and never lounged. If Carlitos was absent, they would sit awhile in dignified silence, as though to be companionable, then say ‘‘adios’’ and move on about their business; but there was no suggestion of the loafer's attitude while they stayed. They were prodigal of time, but did not kill it. If we offered them anything to eat or drink, as we generally did, they would receive it gravely and either consume it on the spot or stow it away in their clothing. Some things we found were not to their liking; but salty things, such as bacon or salt-crackers, they found very tasty, and above all did

[page 42]

sweets appeal to them—candy or sugar or a bit of preserve. A half-emptied tin of sweetened condensed milk, which we handed to a couple of women one day, seemed a special treat. One marked with her finger on the can what would be half the contents, and after drinking to the line, handed the remainder to her companion to finish. This act illustrated another point we found characteristic of Indian nature—the practice of sharing with one another. Even our half-shot Navajos had done that with their soda-crackers.

Small Indian adventures these, you will say, but they served to endear to us these gentle Pueblos, whose childlike ways seem in keeping with the present era of peace that has settled on our Indian country; and when our Laguna boy came to take us back to the railroad, we felt a little as though we were leaving home.

Acoma from the church belfry, looking towards the Enchanted Mesa, seen in the middle distance.

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter II. Of Acoma, Pueblo of the Sky; How Edward Hunt Found Us Lodgings There; and of the Fiesta of San Esteban Next: Chapter IV. Of the Pueblos of the Railroad Side, Laguna and Isleta, and how Manuel Carpio Sang in the Sun

© Arizona Board of Regents