John R. Sweet


The old warrior’s eyes stared out from the past like a rattler’s, two black obsidian chips sharp and filled with venom.
His face was frowning leather, lined with the arroyos and crevices of an Arizona canyon. No words, just that bitter stare,
Those callused fists gripping the carbine tight, and those eyes burning through the camera
lens and onto the glass plate, through a century and more,
around the world and into my fever dream.

I had “taken up the sword”, as the book says, later than most men. Later than I should have, maybe, but it is done, and now the duty’s there.
When those buildings went down my anger billowed up, dark clouds that hung in my mind. It would not blow away,
like Colorado thunderheads after a summer storm. My revenge wish, my war calling, pulled me into the long winter of tests.

The Army took my false professor’s pride; my wife left with it, or left me, to speak plain.
Drill sergeants and other trainers tested my mettle,
Bending and shaping, tempering and hammering into new shape. But the heat was
From the fire, the orange death blossom,
That brought the towers down and burned still. Now the clumsy metal had an edge to it,
was useful and lethal, with a point.

Still the schooling went on, while the first fights were finished and new ones started. I trained more, in the tall forests under Mount Rainier,
On the pancake flat, black Dakota plains, looking up at the Cheyenne’s sacred mountain. And again in Colorado’s foothills, then a pair of
Shiny gold bars rested light on my starched green collar. Crossed cannons, too, they sent me to Oklahoma to prove that I deserved them—
The hardest schoolhouse yet.

Fort Sill was a frontier post whose ground told many stories, held many secrets kept untold. Horse soldiers in Union blue
Rode the prairies and Blackjack oak hills searching for ghost warriors. Kiowa
And Comanche on sinewy ponies, buffalo runners all—
Who raided, slayed and took from punchers, sodbusters and other invaders, chose glory,
Spirit, pride and death, over peace in safety
With family, mule and plow. Hard men in blue rode them to frozen ground in dawn attacks
And herded the survivors to a tame reservation life that harnessed spirit,
Broke it to plow and schoolbook discipline.

Sill became a guardhouse with no walls for those tamed warriors, spirits broke and their kin,
Alive, at least, while cannon soldiers brought their guns,
Those guns that speak twice. Pounding the rocky hills with slide rule precision,
Schoolbook discipline, adjusting, repeat.
To this post, with reservation came the old warrior and his obsidian eyes, rode to ground in a distant Mexican canyon, Arizona left behind.

He had led his Chiricahua eagles in a flight of murderous glory, where ranches burned and senoras wailed for husbands fresh-killed,
And children taken to mountain hide-outs where red beef roasted, new horses stamped
Under star-filled Madre skies.
Freedom, for these mountain fighters, these desert raiders, insurgents maybe, but ours,
From this land here, not over there.
He led them with second-sight, a seer’s gift for knowing the path, which tanque was unwatched,
And where rifles did not wait.

He was cruel, too, without mercy for those who’d murdered his own woman-child long years ago. Now his hate for them burned eternal.
The whites, too, he hated though not with vengeance but because they tamed his people,
Docile Mescaleros whipped like dogs, not wolves,
Got weak lounging by the Gila eating government flour, sugar, whiskey. Mangas Coloradas
And Cochise were gone, but his eagles would still fly, soar over the Bradshaws, Huachucas, the Madre,
Descending on the rabbits panicking down there.

They would make a good run, a great run, twenty years or more, but soldiers would
Hound them, trailing south,
And there would be no rest at the ravished haciendas. Soldados rode up on plodding mules
From Sonora and the east. Mountain hideouts under blue skies, clear cold spring water,
Tiny pastures and rocky perches
To scan the narrow back trail, watching, always watching, the women and the few children
Ready to flee instantly.

This life was hard, but good, the old warrior knew, and Naiche, the young chief, followed his signs.
Their numbers were few but the people in the valleys
Lived in fear of them always glancing over their shoulder at the grim Sierras, fearful of the night
When those demons would come again.
“Apaches!” “Geronimo!” they would howl and panic would catch and spread like the fire.
This freedom was hard, but good,
And they must be hard as well, as hard as the stones of the Madre, deaf to cries,
Blind to tears.

In the north, white soldiers planned their hunt, and they were born with hunters’ spirit.
Crook was one, but the general was old
and so he looked to younger blood. Gatewood was a hound called to the chase,
also part-mule, lean, hard and tough.
“Only an Apache can catch an Apache,” Crook would say and nod towards silent Alchesay, who was a warrior too,
But not an outlaw anymore, though he knew the old trails and ways.

Lieutenant Gatewood was the soldier, carrying word from Uncle Sam, Tom Horn packed
The mules, spoke the lingo, longed to hunt the man.
Alchesay and his scouts had the eagle’s eye, the spirit of el leon, and hated the old warrior
(for reasons of their own)
Who saw them in the fire’s coals, his dreams woke him in the night, he saw that they were
On his trail, they would have to run, and fight,
Then run again to another place, but the hideouts had grown stale.

The trail was faint but the signs were plain, smoking ranches, hasty graves. Stolen herds
Led to mountain paths and hidden camps,
Smoke on the breeze betrayed them to the hunters who crept into ambush. Rifles cracked
Across canyons, bullets smacked into rocks,
Chips stung my face, bullets zipped overhead, then the pop of the guns, shift to another
Position, a glimpse of the enemy firing, moving,
Firing, a fury of shots, another glimpse, then silence. You see
I was there too.

Gatewood had no quit in him and Alchesay’s blood was up; if the trail went on forever
Then that was meant to be.
Weeks stretched into months and mules and horses quit, but the men were harder stuff.
Geronimo’s dreams were tortured by visions of these men that railed at his heels. His people
Slipped away in the night,
Twos and threes headed north towards reservation life and away from his desperate wrath.
He cursed their treachery, these dogs
Of the whites, but Alchesay was no dog—and he hunted long, as the wolf.

Gatewood himself fell to treachery, his brains scattered by allies’ bullets in a canyon deep.
But other soldiers took up the hunt
And every spring was watched, every known trail patrolled, and history caught up
With the old warrior and his band.
The visions had stopped anyway.
They walked in again, to Skeleton Canyon, surrendering body and spirit, and will.
The steaming train hauled them
East to prison, and finally Fort Sill.

Years of faming melons in Oklahoma red dirt, a Wild West Show legend, he dreamed
Of eagles’ wings and rode in
Roosevelt’s parade, a guerrilla Vercengetorix. Dulled by whiskey’s curse the visions would not come
They were just dreams now, of a glorious run.
A mountain war, waged by a deadly, untamed band of fighters that finally quit, and took
The victors’ charity, the best that they could get.

The old warrior died in a drunken ditch, tortured by his memories like too many veterans do.
On a gentle hill under juniper trees he has a cobblestone tomb,
A white man’s monument, but the branches of the tree are hung with tobacco pouches and
Other offerings to the old insurgent.
I went there too, seeking his sight, long runs on Sunday mornings, hoping that my sweat was penance.
A would-be warrior’s offering to an elder warrior renowned.

I knew my own path led to a desert ambush, maybe a mountain fight, plotting and planning through uncounted nights.
Do you have some answers for me, old guerrilla, any tricks you want to share? Would you even
Talk to a white lieutenant? And can you reach out
From over there? Then I’d grin and shake my head and walk over to Alchesay, buried
Near his enemy, no more free despite his service.
What’s the secret? And I’m sure the answer came— there’s no trick,
Hunt hard and never quit.

In Ramadi with a fever I soaked the bed with sweat, tossing in disturbed dreams. My brain was
Tired, sore from the guessing games
With the sniper, the bomb makers, the martyrs. Un-summoned, unexpected, the old warrior was there,
Wild again, but quiet, his bitter eyes spoke
Volumes but told no secrets, offered no help to the white captain, that trembled with the shakes
From some Iraqi malady (Saddam’s Revenge, perhaps?)
Loud and clear, through fever dream, the message came in plain—never ask an enemy (those sharp, obsidian eyes!) for quarter, or mercy, or help.