Mule teams and Dutch oven biscuits, doubletrees and a renegade Apache called the Apache Kid. These are some of the images that fire family history, family myth.
Betty and I spent some time in Arizona and New Mexico this year and as we wandered around between the deserts and the mountains, my mind journeyed to some of my family’s history in that part of the USA: My great-grandfather Riggs herding cattle into the Mogollon country in the 1870s, the Plumbs settling in the eastern part of the state, the decades down around Tombstone and then homesteading in the Sonoran Desert south of the Salt River.
I heard a lot of stories about these folks when I was young, these pioneers who pushed south out of Utah into a wild and desolate land.
One of the tales I heard was about an encounter my grandfather, William Lafayette Plumb, had with the Apache Kid. It came to mind as Betty and I were headed south from San Simon, Arizona, on Interstate 10, driving towards Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. I’d forgotten the story, but as we looked at the desert flats trapped between the Chiricahuas on our right and the Peloncillo Mountains on our left, the story came back to me.
The Apache Kid, or Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl as he was named in Apache, was a semi-mythical figure who lived in the border country of Arizona and New Mexico in the US, and Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico. The Kid was pretty much an orphaned child and was raised around Army posts in Arizona, and when he became old enough, the chief of Army scouts, Al Sieber, chose him for a scout.
In 1887 The Kid was involved in a murder of another Apache scout, was tried and convicted–more than once for the same murder–before finally being sent to the Arizona State Prison in Yuma in 1889. On the way, The Kid escaped and from that point on, became a phantom of sorts, accused of rape and rustling and theft and murder all the way into the 1930s.
My grandfather was a freighter around the turn of the 20th Century. He hauled freight in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico as well as northern Mexico.
The encounter with The Kid as told to me was that Lafe, as they called my grandfather, and two other freighters were camped out in the high desert south of San Simon. Let me set the scene.
The horses were hobbled in a meadow. Even though it’s a desert now, that country back then–in the 1890s–was lush. The freight wagons, or trucks as they were also known, were drawn up in a laager just in case; even though the Apaches had been on the reservation for ten-plus years, old fears refused to die gracefully. The sun was just cutting in over the Peloncillos and the meadowlarks were singing their liquid-gold tunes. A slight breeze bent the heads of the gramma grass and a mantle of snow shrouded the Chiricahuas.
Dutch ovens smoked on blue-red mesquite coals, a speckled coffee pot, too. Tin plates and cups and other gear spread in the bed of one of the wagons. Side meat sizzled in a Dutch oven and potatoes fried in a cast iron skillet. The scent of pinto beans and fresh tortillas lingered over the fire.
The freighters wore high-topped boots and colorful Mexican serapes, floppy felt hats. Big knives hung off their belts and long-barreled 44s in holsters. Winchester rifles leaned up against the spokes of wagon wheels.
No one heard The Kid arrive…just suddenly there, sitting horseback, sombrero brim pulled down over his forehead, right hand on the grip of one of his pistols.
I imagine alarm and awkwardness. Hemming and hawing. He was an Indian and they were white men.
But I also imagine these freighters having a notion of hospitality, and they would have known that if he was going to kill them, he probably would have already done so, and so they invited him to sit a spell and share their victuals.
They ate their beans and tortillas and side meat and spuds, the freighters talking about the route south, their families. The Kid sat on his haunches and packed all his grub inside tortillas and never said a word. That’s what my grandmother kept saying to me when she first told me this story. “He never said a word.”
When he finished eating, he set his utensils down on the end of one of the wagons, walked over to his horse, jumped into the saddle, turned to ride off, but then stopped. He looked at the freighters and tipped his hat and said, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.” That’s what she kept saying, my grandmother, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.”
One of the important aspects of family history is how it creates a rich tapestry that ties us to the past. Some folks reckon that what happened in the past doesn’t matter since it can’t be changed. Yet I can’t help but wonder if where we come from isn’t part of who we are.
I once heard a radio interview with the African American poet Rita Dove. She talked about family and the strengths that family history provides to the living. The past provides context, it presents a panoply of characters to admire, or not admire.
Rita Dove’s not-too-distant ancestors were slaves. Yet family was so important to her that since she couldn’t know who her ancestors were, she made them up. It was important for her to create a lineage, to visualize, to name them, to give herself a framework to understand who and what she had become.
Even though I can name a lot of my ancestors, family history is important to me for the same reasons it is important to Rita Dove. It’s important to me to know about Lafe Plumb’s encounter with the Apache Kid.
I don’t necessarily have to make up a family history. I have stories related to me over the years by my elders. I also have family rumors and myth–some true, some false–that I can draw upon so that the images I see in my mind are the kind I can hear and see and smell, the kind I can rub my hand over and when I look at my fingers, find a festered splinter that came out of one of Lafe’s freight wagons.