Writing Contest Winner: Gila: 2146

Honorable Mention


The Tribes are all here. Here on the banks of the Gila. Spread out up and downstream, colors flying. It's October. Sunny. Dry. Pleasant, cool nights. Good swimming in the day.

We play host to this gathering, we who live along the river in this valley, where the towns of Gila and Cliff once stood. We play host every year, and all the Tribes come here.

There's Kalinda--she loves these gatherings. A chance to strut her stuff, turn some heads, gather attention to herself. One day she'll leave with one of the Tribes and our group here in the Valley will feel the loss.

And there: Marco and Helen, already drunk on the mesquite wine our valley is famous for. Mid-afternoon and stumbling over each other, laughing.    

Well, it is a festival time. And I'm getting old, but not old enough to turn curmudgeon. But ever since Willow died....

There's the Pinos Alto Tribe: mountain folk in skins, with feathers in their hair. Outlandish. But healthy, and very few mutants among them.         

And the Silver Tribe--not so lucky. It's said the old mines there did something to the water. Same with the Red Rock and Tyrone Tribes. Lot of still-births and defects. Still, they do know how to have fun, with their music and dancing and colorful clothes and fine cannabis.

And there's the Frisco Tribe from out by where Glenwood and Pleasanton used to be. And the Luna Tribe from up by the Lake. And the White Mountains Tribes. They probably travel the farthest to be here. But they also seem to be the most prosperous. Those mountain meadows grow sturdy horses, cattle, and people.

The Mimbres Tribe is here too. They tend to be prickly and irascible, so we keep an eye on them. When the rare fight breaks out in camp, there is generally a Mimbreno involved. But for all that, they have strong healers and excellent herb farms in their valley.

Then there are the Wilderness Tribes. The Apaches that have gone up the canyons of the three forks of the Gila, occupying the old Cliffdwellings and the Hot Springs. They grow good corn there on the Upper Gila, and bring it to share and barter.

Yes, all the Tribes are here.

Thus we gather every year. To remember...and to forget.

I remember forty years ago or so, when I was a child of ten. There were still people living then who had survived the Great Plague of the 2060's when nine-tenths of the world's population succumbed to the White Death, so-called because before dying a person would lose all of the pigment in her skin. Some called it the Albino Death. Whatever. It all ended in death one way or another.

Hard to imagine those olden days, with so many people living here in the valley. Thousands, those survivors said! Yes, hard to imagine.

I've seen the ruins of Old Silver. And the old mines there. Nobody goes near anymore, whether through superstition or good sense, I'm not sure. I went there and never got sick. But I'd brought my own water with me.

Well, everybody knows that water is life. And poison means death. Or worse. So we tend to be careful with our water. We--the Gila Tribe--monitor and police all the activity around the River. The River is our mother, and we don't mess around with her.

Ever since the mass die-off of the 2060's there've been no more epidemics of any kind. Sure, there are still the miscarriages and still-births and birth defects, but no disease to speak of. Besides cancer, of course, which is what took Willow seven years ago.

I suppose those people back then survived for a reason. Something genetic, probably. I heard about genetics from some of those old-time survivors. Some kind of program in our innermost being that determines all kinds of things about a person: eye color, hair color, height, etc. And susceptibility to deadly viruses. At least that's how it was explained to me.

It sounded a lot like magic. In fact, magic makes more sense to me than "genetics." But there you go. I've always been a skeptic until I see something with my own eyes.

Magic, I've seen.

Once, a Red Rock shaman came to the Gathering with a big hunk of iron. He said it came from the Moon. He waved his hands over it and said some words and then took two steps away and let go this metal rod he was holding and--wham!--it slammed right into that hunk of iron and stuck to it. Then other people came up and held various things near the iron. Some flew and stuck and some didn't. But I felt the pull of that iron on a horse-shoe I had in my hand. There was no denying it.

Another time there was a Silver woman who was a little off in her head. She mumbled and muttered to herself all day, and never bathed, and people avoided her if they could.

But this one time she came right up to me and started saying the exact words I was thinking in that moment. She said, "I sure do miss Willow. Maybe I should follow her into the Dark." It was uncanny. Frightening. I can see why people avoided her. But if that's not magic, I'm not sure what else to call it.

I also saw a medicine woman from one of the Mimbres Tribes heal a young boy who'd been bitten by a rattlesnake, just by singing over him for a day-and-a-half. That seems a different kind of magic. But what do I know? I'm just telling what I saw.

There are several reasons why the Gatherings take place here in our valley. One is that we are very well organized, but have no chief or head-man or head-woman. We decide and manage things by Council, and everyone participates. We are also one of the largest Tribes, with more than a hundred members, counting children.

And besides, we tend to get along with everyone. That's not true about most of the Tribes. So even though we are not as interesting or exciting as the wilder, more flamboyant groups--and some call us boring or stodgy or uptight because we run a tight Gathering (especially with regards to the River)--everyone trusts us to be fair and just, and to do the right thing in pretty much any situation.

I suppose that's why a fiery, beautiful girl like Kalinda--though she grew up here--will one day run off with one of the more exciting Tribes. The quiet, well-ordered life is just not for everyone.

The Tribal Gathering generally runs for ten days. Enough time for people to re-connect with old friends, get a little wild with dance and drink and smoke; time for the Councils to come together to discuss, argue and decide anything that needs deciding. Also time to trade and barter goods, which is mostly, but not exclusively, handled by the women.

However, ten days is not so long that old enmities have a chance to flare up. Or for the Tribes to overstay their welcome in our valley. Once all the bands leave we can get down to the business of repairing the inevitable damage that humans do to the River, and preparing for the Winter.

When I was young the Winters were much milder. The old-timers said it was because of something humans did to the Earth. Filled the air with gases that trapped heat and raised the Earth's temperature. Some even maintained that's why the Great Plague--and all the smaller ones before it--happened.

Again, I don't think they really knew one way or the other. It's just what some people believed back then. And nobody knows nowadays. Except maybe the shamans. But they keep that knowledge to themselves.

A main feature of the annual Gathering of the Tribes is when, on the night of the Full Moon, usually planned to be the final night, when the revelry and debauchery reaches its highest pitch, the various Shamans and Medicine Women and Men hold a separate Gathering of their own. A special Tipi is erected away from the rest of the camp that holds about forty of them. What they do in there is a closely held secret. I have only heard them refer to it as "traveling" or "journeying." I believe it's a sort of group meditation or trance that they undertake together, perhaps with the aid of one of the plants or fungi said to induce visions.

Whatever it is they do, the next day they assemble all the Tribes to deliver the message that they received on their "travels." Some wisdom that each Tribe is meant to take home and follow for the next year.

Most years the teaching is fairly simple and innocuous, like: "Take better care of your elders. Listen to them. They hold the memory of your Tribe." Or: "Moderation in all things and live a long and healthy life." Small aphorisms to guide us and help up live better lives.

But sometimes there are pronouncements or predictions; warnings about some danger to be faced in the coming months. Once, when I was young, the Medicine Council (as they are called) warned of terrible storms that would come right around the Winter Solstice. So when the storms did hit, we were not entirely unprepared and the loss and destruction were minimized.

About ten years ago they warned of a shower of fire and rock from the heavens. Such an idea sounded incredible to us all, but then it happened just like they said. It was terrible, but most of the Tribes were smart enough to heed the warning and retreated to find caves or dug bunkers before it happened. Again, many lives were saved by the fore-warning.

Well, last night was Full Moon. The musicians and dancers gathered on the Green. The Moon was so bright no torches were needed. The throb of drums pulsed in everyone's blood. Even mine, I must admit. I danced a few dances and let myself be carried in the waves of ecstasy and release. That, after all, is what the Gathering is all about. To live in the now; not stay stuck in the past.

But when the clothes started coming off and the couples started forming, I retired to my hut and lay quiet, listening to the drums and the shouts of the revelers, which went on until dawn.

Meanwhile, the Medicine Council "traveled" in their Tipi.

Late in the morning, as people arose sleepily and greeted the new day--the final day of the Gathering--we were called back to the Green by Guidijo--the oldest and most formidable of the shamans. An Apache man of the Wilderness Tribes, he called out in an enormous voice, and his voice held great authority and power.

So everyone who was able congregated on the lawn, waiting expectantly for this year's message from the Council.

"Hear me, People, and listen well!" he boomed, his ancient lungs filling the air with sound. "We of the Medicine Council have seen trouble and tribulation!" This is how they begin when a warning is forthcoming. It makes people wake up a little and take notice. "This trouble is like nothing we've seen since the Bad Old Days. And this trouble is coming soon! Very Soon! MAYBE TODAY!"

At that there was an astonished murmur from the crowd, five hundred strong now, as the stragglers wandered up.

Guidijo raised his beaded juniper staff for quiet.


"Men are coming here from the East. They are coming to tell us to change how we live. How we pray. How we speak and how we eat. We don't know by what authority they do this, but we must prepare an answer to this threat to our ways. That is all!"


That was this morning. The tribal leaders have been meeting all day with their Tribes and with each other. As a member of the Gila Council I join the meetings and listen, though I rarely speak anymore. I try to listen and witness, and hold the words in my memory. I have a good memory and sometimes I'm called upon to repeat something someone said earlier. But mostly, I listen.

Now it's nearing the end of the day and the smell of cooking fires fills the camp. I'm looking east down the track toward Old Silver, when I see him. A large man on a large dappled grey horse. The man rides comfortably in a fine saddle. As he nears I see he wears a funny hat: tall in the center with wide brims on either side, curled up slightly, looking like wings.

More people in the camp become aware of him and I feel a ripple of anxiety move through the crowd.

Men are coming from the East.

So maybe this is the trouble, though it's only one man and he is not doing anything particularly threatening. Then I see his guns--a large pistol in a holster at his waist and a very large rifle in a scabbard alongside his horse.

We in the Tribes know of guns, though as far as I know there are none left in all these lands that still function. They were deemed unnecessary--and even quite dangerous and harmful to the general welfare--at least a generation ago. We do our hunting with bow and arrow and spear. But we have seen ancient guns and recognize them for what they are.

The man rides straight to the center of camp, to the Dancing Green, and stops. People are gathering around him, nervous yet curious. Some, I see, have bows or spears in their hands. But everyone remains calm and quiet, waiting to see what this portends.

Finally, when a large crowd has gathered, the man calls out in a tremendous voice:

"People, hear me! Be it understood that in the year of Our Lord, 2146, the Great Republic of Texas has taken back all these lands! You are now subjects of the Republic, under the Viceroy of Waco and his Regent!"

A loud murmur arose from the crowd. Fear, anger, confusion. Some of the words the man had spoken were unfamiliar or made little sense to the people, but the gist of his message was clear.

Magdalena, a sturdy Mimbres woman stepped forward to face him. She said calmly, though in a voice that carried over the crowd,

“We live free here. We are subjects of no state or Republic, or whatever! We trouble no one. Why do you come here to trouble us?"

The man barely looked at her, sitting up high on his horse. He gazed around at the people, a grim look on his weathered and wrinkled face.

"Let me speak with your head-men. Head-men, join me here. Now!"

Another confused moment. Only a few of the Tribes had a Head-man. Some had a Head-woman. Others, like ours, had councils with no leaders.

But Magdalena--one of the Council-Women of the Mimbrenos--is not put off so easily.

"Why should we listen to you, or follow your commands, stranger? You speak nonsense. Come back when you learn some manners!" Heads nod in the crowd. Some smiles break out.

The man's expression never changes, but he slowly withdraws his pistol from its holster and levels it at her, saying in a voice that makes my skin prickle with chill,

"Woman! Do you know what this is? It's a Texas Ranger's Colt .45. I could end your life in one second. That's why you must listen to me! I am not accustomed to being spoken to so rudely by women. Where I come from women know their place and don't speak unless spoken to. It is you who must learn manners!"

By now the crowd is growing angry. Some of the younger Apache men come up beside Magdalena, knives drawn. But the man on the horse seems unperturbed.

"Listen!" He says in that voice of ice. "An army is on its way here. The Army of the Great Republic of Texas. Two thousand men strong, and every one of them carrying a rifle like mine. Your arrows and spears, and knives," he looks scornfully down at the young Apaches surrounding Magdalena, "will be useless against them. You must submit...or die!"

The tension in the crowd is growing dangerous. Surely the man feels it, but still he seems unmoved.

"I am the Honorable Grand Vizier Hiram Lee Garnett. I am a messenger of the Great Republic and a missionary of the Church of the One True God!" His gun is still aimed at Magdalena's heart, though he seems to have forgotten about her.

"Hear me!" he goes on in that weirdly-accented, inflectionless, nightmarish bark. "Yes, you can kill me right now. I would welcome the death of a Martyr! But I say to you again, I am only a messenger of a Power greater than any of you can imagine. Killing me would do you no good, and when the Army arrives there will be severe consequences for such a lawless act!"

Finally, Guidijo steps forward. The crowd goes quiet to hear what he will say. Guidijo is universally held in awe by the Tribes.

"Stranger from the East!" he begins in his own barrel-chested booming voice. "Now hear me! I am Guidijo of the Wild Upper Gila Tribes. Your coming was known to us, for we are given to see things far away. We know you speak truth when you speak of this Army that comes to trouble us. We have seen them too.

"But what you don't understand is that you and your Republic and your Viceroy..." he pauses and raises his arms, "and your One True God have no power over us! These lands are ours and belong to no other! You may hold these valleys for a time, but if your soldiers ever try to enter the Wilderness, they will all die. And when they arrive here they will find no one and nothing to rule. So go back to your Army and give them this message. I have spoken!"

The crowd now seems less confused. Less afraid. Comforted by Guidijo's strong words and bearing.

But the Honorable Grand Vizier Hiram Lee Garnett looks like a storm-cloud about to hurl lightning down upon Guidijo.

Now he levels his pistol at Guidijo's breast and, without hesitation, fires at point-blank range. An awful flash and noise comes from the gun.

The crowd is stunned. They move forward in rage to kill the stranger.

But Guidijo still stands before them, unharmed. For the first time, the stranger's face registers emotion: surprise.

Those in the front of the crowd charge forward to pull him down. But Guidijo raises his arms again and shouts over the din,

"Hold, my people! Hold! Do not murder this messenger. He is merely a slave! A puppet! A shadow!

"And you! Stranger from the East! Hear me! You cannot harm us! You cannot even find us! So go! Go back to your Viceroy and your Army and your One True God and tell them not to bother with us. We are not worth the trouble. Go now! Be gone!"

The force of Guidijo's will and voice are so strong that the man's horse begins to walk forward as the crowd parts before it. The Honorable Grand Vizier Hiram Lee Garnett seems confused and uncertain, his eyes wide. He says nothing as his horse carries him east into the gathering dusk, down the track to Old Silver.