The Battle of Paunchey Springs



            So, you think they were heroes, bold men living by the Code of The West.  No, they were greedy fools, taking what they wanted from the Red Indians simply because they could.  Even that ain't right.  They're brown, not red and they ain't from India.  Fools!  And I was no better than any of them. 

            How do I know?  Well, I'm older than I look, believe it or not.

            I made it through the war without a scratch, learning to fight as I went.  I was happy to be out of the Union Army and not have to stand at attention and salute no more.  I spent a few years failing at a bunch of jobs before I faced it that killing was the only thing I was good at.  Then I went west and did well hunting bounties.  I had made a name for myself by the time I got a letter from Alvin Corino.  He was offering five hundred in gold for some secret job and asked me to come to 11 Main Street in Gerton and consider what he had to tell me.  I knew Gerton, a fair sized town in Southwest Utah, and I figured there was five hundred reasons to hear him out.  The train stopped there and his house was easily found.

            I knocked and an old butler answered.  As soon as I gave my name, Burt Busler, he said I was expected and showed me to a seat in the parlor.  Mr. Corino joined me.  He was a little and old, looked Mexican but talked like an educated man from Boston, dressed rich and formal with a wizard's pentagram in place of a tie.  He sat across from me with a small coffee table between us, introduced himself and got right to it.  "I am offering five hundred in gold for a bottle of water," he started, making me chuckle.  "Obviously, not just any water.  Paunchey Spring water.  Do you know Paunchey Springs?"

            "Can't say I do," I said. 

            Corino closed his eyes and mumbled.  A neatly folded paper appeared in his raised hand and he looked to me for a reaction.  I gave him my poker face.  Now, I ain't one of them godfearing types who thinks magic is sinful, but there was plenty of that sort in Utah.  We all know magic can't be banned by law, it's in the constitution, but that don't stop folks from snubbing anyone who knows it, or worse.  I myself know the basics but I ain't got no fancy degree or nothing.  He unfolded the hand-drawn map carefully on the table.  It showed the Nevada desert, a place you don't go unless you don't mind dying of thirst or in a fight.

            "The springs are marked here, incorrectly," he told me.  "The reward is for finding the place and bringing me a sample of spring water.  The local Indians might try to stop you."

            His eyes prompted my for an answer.  "I heard tell of that stretch of wilderness," I said.  "Hostiles would try to stop anyone."

            "Too dangerous for you?" he asked, smiling a little.

            "I did not say that," I countered.  "But I got to know you have the five hundred you're offerin'."

            "Dayson," he called quietly.  The butler had been standing out of the way.  "If you would please, fetch five hundred in gold from the vault for show."

            "Yes, sir," said Dayson before leaving.

            Corino drew a small, reinforced steel bottle with a catch-lock top from inside his fancy suit jacket and presented it to me.  "The water must be preserved in this and brought to me.  Don't drink any of it."

            I did my best to look undecided.  "I'll try it if you pay expense money, now,  and the five hundred, unless I can't find the springs or don't come back at all."

            "How much expense money?" he asked, looking pleased.

            "Twenty-five should do it," I answered.  I expected him to argue but he simply nodded.  "What's so special about that water?"

            "Quite possibly nothing at all," he said.  "That is what I hope to find out."

            Dayson returned holding a serving tray with a hundred five dollar gold coins neatly arranged and two full shot glasses.  Corino stood, prompting me to rise, and handed me five coins.  "Are you satisfied, sir?"

            I smiled a greedy smile.  "I'm in," I said.  We drank to our deal.  His whiskey tasted expensive.

            "You have my gratitude," he said.  "Is there anything else?"

            I pocketed the coins.  "Where can I get a bath, shave and cigar without bein' robbed?" I asked, talking straight.

            "Two blocks to the left along Main street," he answered.  "Seek the red hotel sign.  They have baths, a barber, cigars at the bar and an honest reputation."

            "Good day, sir," I said.  "Hope to see you after my journey."

            He smiled and wished me well.  Dayson showed me out and I found the hand painted wooden hotel sign directly.  The entrance led to a saloon and I arranged a haircut and bath with the barkeep.  Before long I was neatly shaved, trimmed and clean, sitting at a table in the saloon with a beer and a cigar.

            I ain't no wizard, but I know a few easy tricks.  I can make a divining rod when I'm thirsty, use pathfinding when I'm lost and I know how hex.  So I hexed my cigar, just to be sure.  As soon as I struck a match and inhaled, I felt the sudden realization of something's pain and almost heard a whimper.  Something was in me and hexed smoke did not make it leave.

            "Where'd you come from?" I thought without speaking.

            Spirits don't talk in words  They give you visions or realizations or such.  This one gave me the memory of a mouthful of dung and then the image of me making love with my mother, making me shiver with disgust.

            "Stop cussing and answer!" I thought.  It did not, and I took another puff.  Then I had a brief vision of the shot of whiskey Corino had given me.  Sneaky bastard!  "Why ain't you gone," I almost muttered, sipping my beer.

            I realized that it was stuck in me until my mission was done, to help.  "Help how," I wondered.  My mouth was suddenly full of cold water and I swallowed, sputtering.

            "Mister!" The barkeep said sharply.  "This is a Godfearing establishment.  We don't serve sorcerers."  He was a big man whose thick mustache dominated his face, stooping slightly with his hands under the bar, probably ready with a scatter gun.

            "What's that got to do with me?" I retorted.  The man's face arranged itself into a disgusted look that asked me how stupid I thought he was.  I rose swiftly and my right hand hovered over the six gun at my side.  "You throwin' me out?"

            "I'm asking you to leave," the man said evenly, his eyes flashing like lightning over the prairie.  All talking in the place had suddenly stopped.

            I reached for my beer with my right hand and gulped about half before putting out my cigar in the glass and saving it for later, my eyes on him.  Then I walked out.  I wandered around Gerton looking for stuff to buy.  Spare cloths and a new hat, water jugs, meat jerky which I hoped was beef, a bedroll,  a new repeating rifle and a box each of ammo for it and my forty-five.  I found a horse dealer and bought two small, rugged looking horses, a saddle, bridles and a bag hitch.  When done, I found a private spot to camp outside of town.  I watched the sun set and finished my cigar, figuring that the hex had worn off, and then slept lightly and left the next morning before dawn.

            I headed southwest, riding one horse with the other tied to my saddle.  I didn't count the days and had no way of knowing exactly where I was.  I only knew that the land got hotter and dryer as I went and towns got smaller and further apart, until I was alone in the desert.  I took as much care as I could to not be spotted and kept my new rifle handy.

            I was making my way through a rocky, winding gully when I had a vision of hostiles about.  The spirit I was stuck with had been so quiet I almost forgot he was there.  "Thanks" I thought quietly as I hopped off my horse and took cover.  A brave came around a bend ahead of me, and he was a wild one, painted red, blue and black with a bow ready to shoot and a rifle slung over his shoulder.  When he saw me and the horses, he dropped the bow, readied his rifle and shouted.  I figured he had been hunting with the bow to save bullets, and was calling others.

            We had us a right proper shootout.  There were more hostiles but my rifle fired quicker than theirs and held a dozen rounds.  I didn't know how many I had hit, but it was over quick and I was still alive, which was more than I could say for my poor horses.  I heard movement, so I broke cover and found one hostile dragging off his wounded pal.

            "Speak English?" I demanded.

            "Some," he mumbled.

            "You just had to shoot before sayin' hello," I chided.  He looked at me like I was a poisonous bug he wanted to squish.  "Where's Paunchey Springs."

            "Donno," the hostile said.  I aimed my six gun at the wounded man's gut.

            "I only know Elder Spring," he said, cringing.  My look asked where and he pointed.  "You go!"

            "You go," I countered, lowering my gun.  "And don't come back."  He looked relieved and pulled his cohort away as quick as he could.  I listened until I figured I was alone, found a dropped hatchet and checked the dead horses.  I could only get to one saddlebag.  It held my ammo and some food and water, but I'd have to find more.  I cut myself some horse meat with the hatchet, put the bag over my shoulder and left, deliberately meandering and careful not to leave tracks.

            I traveled on foot for a few days with no sign of either hostiles or Elder Spring.  The spirit with me was able to refill my water jug, but I needed food and saw nothing I could eat.  So I decided to trap a snake.  As the sun eased down, I found a flat rock and left it in the open before picking a spot for myself.  Before dawn I went back and quickly pitched the rock aside with the hatchet at the ready.  What was there had a gray, serpentine body but its bright green head had a lizard snout.  Basilisk!  I closed my eyes before it could turn its head and swung the hatched wildly.  The basilisk hissed and I struck at the sound.  I felt an impact and heard a soft thump.  I backed up, tuned my head and opened my eyes with care.  To my relief I'd took its head off.  Some folks didn't believe that anyone who met a basilisk's gaze would be turned to stone, but I seen statues that proved otherwise. 

            Basilisk meat ain't bad so long as you get all the sharp little bones out and roast it well, and this one was as long as my leg and almost as thick.  So I cooked and jerked the meat and made a hat band out of a length of its scaly hide, using its face to hold the ends.  Hopefully, fewer people would make trouble for a basilisk's killer, and I had earned it.

            I still hadn't found the spring.  I came across a small, dry bush and checked it.  The trunk was almost wood and I set about cutting a Y-shaped bit, then I held it loosely and concentrated.  The divining rod gently tugged southwest.  I dropped it and followed it till I saw a settlement in the distance.  Then I hid until dark.  The moon was full and I could see OK.  The settlement was holes dug in the side of a cliff with stairs and walkways cut in the upper rows, most lit by firelight.  The green fringe on top looked like crops, with a gentle slope behind.  A circle of stones had been built near the base of the cliff, and my divining rod lay at the edge.  As I snuck closer, I could hear water inside the circle.  I pulled out and opened the steel bottle, looking to win the five hundred dollar bet that I'd found what I was looking for.

            I rushed to the circle and thrust the bottle inside, feeling cool water on my hand.  I heard wings, like a spooked locust, and something flew towards my face.  It was a human shaped critter about the size of my thumb, covered in brown fur and sporting bumble bee wings.  Its eyes looked too big for its tiny head and it glowed a faint yellow.  I bolted like a hunted deer and slammed into a man who had been sneaking up on me.  We both tumbled to the ground.  He was a lean, brown man, naked but for leather over his privates and moccasins on his feet.  His black hair was long and loose and he looked as surprised as I felt.

            "She let you see her?" he stammered.

            I scrambled to my feet and he let out a short, sharp whoop.  People answered from the cliff and I froze where I was.  The little glowing critter was gone.  People gather around me right quick, talking in a language I never heard before.

            The crowd parted and a woman with a suspicious bearing strode forward, flanked by two large men with rifles that looked like they made them themselves.  She looked young, but something in hear eyes and bearing told me that she wasn't.  She approached the man who'd snuck up behind me and spoke with authority, gesturing urgently toward me.

            The man smiled and spoke.  "I am Amatike, and you are?"

            I pretended to relax.  "Call me Bee-Bee," I said.  "Just a traveler desperate for water."

            He translated and the woman looked me over and spoke briefly.  "This is the Fire Witch, leader of the Chosen Elders," Amatike informed me with reverence.  He watched me expecting recognition.  Fire Witch said something that sounded important.  Amatike looked hesitant and they argued for a moment.  I waited, looking for a way out.

            "She says you are one of us, now," Amatike said.  I could tell he didn't agree.  Fire Witch prompted him and his eyes dropped.  "The Bathing Spirit has allowed you to see her, so by our tradition you shall join us and stay."

            "Thanks for the invite," I said, surprised.  "But by my tradition I have places to go."  He translated this and Fire Witch shook her head.  She gestured and her two bodyguards grabbed my arms while others took my guns and hatchet.  Another woman filled a jug from the spring and followed while the others lined up for a drink.  I was taken into a hole on the ground level of the cliff.  It led into a large chamber with thick columns of un-carved stone in the center.  The place had the look of a meeting lodge, with a low table near the back surrounded by soft cushions and burning stones near the walls.  They made me sit and Fire Witch set out bowls while the woman filled them with water.  Fire Witch said something that sounded like grace and they all chugged.  She motioned for me to drink, but I just sat and eyed the bowl suspiciously, remembering what Corino had said.  They began to converse in hushed voices.

            One of the bodyguards called suddenly, and Amatike joined us.  "You came for water," he pointed out, looking skeptical.  By the look of the others, I was not being given a choice.  I drank and all five of them shouted with formality before they sat and relaxed. 

            "You are now a Chosen Elder," Amatike said, as if he didn't believe it either.  "The spirit's gift has made you immortal."

            "I'm immortal by drinking a bug's bathwater?" I mumbled with disbelief.

            He looked at me as if I'd just farted in church.  "I don't know why the spirit has given her gift to a white man as young as you," he grumbled.  "She is the last of them because of you people and your careless ways."  Fire Witch interrupted and Amatike explained something.  She made a pronouncement and he addressed me.  "You must choose.  Stay with us and learn our ways or leave here on foot with nothing."  He read my thoughts in my face.  "The gift will stop you from aging, but you can still be killed by thirst or combat," he added.

            "I'll stay," I said, cornered.  I hadn't said for how long.

            "Get some sleep," Amatike, ordered.  "I speak your language, so I will instruct you tomorrow."  The bodyguards led me to a bedroom near the top of the cliff.  It looked to me like I would need help leaving.  Alone, I checked the catch-lock bottle and hid it in the saddlebag before laying on the cushion that passed for a bed and eventually sleeping.

            I was helped down at first light and brought to a dawn ritual led by Fire Witch.  The Chosen Elders lived a simple life of prayer and substance.  Amatike instructed me in the subsistence part and put me to work tending their crops.  They had used their waste as fertilizer, which had been turned into soil by Fire Witch's fire.  It did not simply burn like natural fire, and she used it for everything from healing the sick and injured to lighting stones every night.  Pilgrims came from the surrounding nations and asked advice or brought people who needed healing.  Some also brought old folks to try to see the Bathing Spirit.  The pilgrims always brought gifts as payment.

            After about a week, I slipped away while tending crops, with some stolen food and the steel bottle.  I had a vision of walking northeast all night.  Yes, the spirit and me was still stuck with each other.  I heard thunder and studied the sky.  Desert storms dumped a whole lot of water and I couldn't see no high ground.  Another flash, crimson lightning shaped like an arrow.  A sign?  I could feel that the spirit in me wanted to go to where it was pointing and I didn't have no better idea.

            "Halt!"  The shout came from a soldier carrying a bayoneted rifle.  Of course I halted.

            "I'm just a traveler," I mumbled.

            He looked me over.  "My orders are to bring lone strangers to the Captain," he said.  "Come with me."

            He led me to a typical army camp of forty or so men, mostly sleeping under the stars.  A large tent in the middle passed for officer's quarters and he took me to the entry flap and asked permission to enter.  Someone said "Yes" and he brought me in.  Inside was a space about the size of a small room, where two men sat at a flimsy table.  One was a little old man with long white hair and beard, wearing the uniform of a Cavalry Captain.  The other, to my surprise, was Alvin Corino, dressed in a formal suit and top hat.

            Corino rose.  "It is a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Busler," he said, smiling.  "May I introduce Captain Harper?"

            The Captain looked me over.  "So he's the one," he said.  "Welcome."

            I almost saluted.  "Pleasure, sir," I answered.  As I thought of something polite to say to Corino, he pointed a small silver hoop at me and I began to cough violently.  I breathed out a whole lot of white smoke that made straight for the hoop, making what looked like thick paper inside.  I could feel the spirit was gone.

            "You OK!" The Captain asked sharply.

            "He's fine," Corino said cheerfully. 

            I stood, making sure I could breath.  "I'm fit, sir," I said after a moment.

            "And you have some spring water for me," Corino said, his eyes on the silver hoop.

            "So long as you got coins for me," I answered, holding the bottle.  "It might interest you to know that it came from..."

            "All we need to know is where the springs are," Captain Harper interrupted.  "We'll take it from there."

            "You're plannin' on taking the spring?" I said, alarmed.

            Harper turned to Corino.  "You told him?"

            "He must have guessed," Corino answered.  "And you could have made it more difficult."

            "Bad idea," I protested.

            Captain Harper held up a hand to silence me.  "Fetch the map," he told the soldier who'd brung me.  The man saluted and left.

            Corino asked why it was a bad idea and I told both men about Fire Witch and her followers.  The soldier returned and laid a map of the surrounding desert on the table.  Corino put the hoop on the map and it moved.  When it stopped, he marked it with a pen.

            "That's not far," said Harper.

            "Beggin' your pardon, sir," I began.  "I'll swap water for gold, then I would like to be on my way." 

            Corino handed me a heavy bag and I gave him the bottle.  He opened the catch-lock and drank, then handed the bottle to Harper, who did the same.  "Very good, sir." Corino told me.  I was checking the bag, which did contain five hundred in gold.

            "Yes, very good," I answered.  "It's been a pleasure." I began to leave.

            "Not so fast," Harper said.  "I'm commandeering your services.  Your going with us."

            "Sir, I..." I stammered.

            "You'll obey orders or you'll hang," he said, scowling.

            "Yes, sir," I answered despondently.

            I was taken outside and guarded until morning, when Captain Harper gave the order to break camp.  Then I was put in the supply wagon, which rolled between the horsemen and the troop's two small cannons.  I climbed out when we stopped, only to find that Elder Spring was in sight. 

            Harper shouted "Surrender or we will fire!"  He paused for a count of three and gestured to the cannon crew.  He wanted a fight.  The cannonball struck the cliff and something collapsed inside.  Fire Witch came out alone.  She took a deep breath and breathed out a long stream of flame, directly at the cannons.  I could hear powder exploding and soldiers screaming.  The troops fired at will and I saw Fire Witch go down, and three or four rifles fired from inside the cliff.  A bugle played charge and Harper and Corino watched as the cavalrymen slaughtered any Chosen Elder who didn't run. 

            After the fight, Corino went to the spring.  "It's ours!" he shouted.  "Men will pay us anything for eternal life! "  Harper rode to join him.  As for me, I walked over the battlefield in a daze.  More than half the troop lay dead mixed with the bodies of the Chosen Elders.  I stopped near a soldier's boot prints in the desert sand.

            The newspapers named that murderous attack The Battle of Paunchey Springs, calling it a glorious victory for the army, just like they always did.  Why am I so bitter?  The world I knew just blew away like topsoil out of the dust bowl.  I saw that, too.  Now, everything's paved and there ain't a bison to be found.  What I saw that day changed my way of thinking and made me wonder what the point of taming the West ever was.  You see, Harper and Corino never would get rich.  I know because I seen the body of the last Bathing Spirit, crushed to death in a soldier's boot print.



back to main page