An encounter at Baker’s Park

It started out warm but the monsoon summer hung heavy in the afternoon sky as they made their way up the Animas toward what prospectors called The Forks, where traces of gold had been discovered the year before. It was 1861 and the two trappers had made the journey from Taos north to the San Juan in search of treasure that had eluded most previous expeditions. Although it was late July hints of winter could already be felt in the early morning.

John MacGregor and Charles Healy were an unlikely pair. They never got along in civilization but somehow, when cut off from it all in the mountains they were friends, respecting each other’s ability to survive in the wilderness.

“I hear they gonna have ’em a war back east,” said MacGregor. “Guess the South has had enough. I read a paper from back in February when I was in St. Joseph. They say they had to sneak Lincoln into Washington for his own Inauguration.”

“Yeah, even before John Calhoun was elected to the South Carolina Senate they’ve been at each other’s throats,” said Healy. “The South has its point but you can’t be ownin’ people outright…”

“Oh, you one of those abolitionists?”

“One of those what?”

“Abolitionists. One of those fellers that is out to end slavery.”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that all I’m sayin’ is…”

“And if you showed up on the battlefield with that headdress on nobody would know which side you was fightin’ for. Hell, the way you hold onto that red hat you’d think it alone could protect your scalp.”

“What about you prancin’ around St. Joseph half naked, drunk as a dog? singing those naughty French postcard songs… ‘Woke up the whole whorehouse, didn’t you,” chided Healy. “The only reason you made it out alive is that the Madame liked your harp.”

“That’s right. My music saved us both.”

“The poor woman loved the way you played the harmonica, even though I can attest you have a long way to go before you master the instrument.”

“At least I’m not walking around in a silly red hat,” said MacGregor.

“That silly red hat is part of the family tartan, fool. If you had the least bit of breeding you’d understand legacies and the like. You just walk up and down mountains blowing on that mouth harp, looking to get rich.”

“We’d better get at it too,” said MacGregor. “We’ll be having a lot of company just as soon as they sort out their problems back in Virginia and Massachusetts.”

As they reached what is now California Gulch, MacGregor stopped playing his harp. It became apparent that they already had company. A small band of Ute had appeared on a ridge to the south. Although the Utes kept at a distance it was clear that the two men had been seen.

“They couldn’t help but hear us comin’ what with that harmonica noise,” whispered Healy…”

“Who could miss seein’ us with that red hat sittin’ on your head?” spat MacGregor. “Tartans be damned. Now we’re in for it.”

The Utes got a little closer as the prospectors looked for cover. They found a small outcropping protected to two sides by a sheer cliff.

“We’d better stop here and make a stand if need be,” said Healy. “Otherwise we’re caught out in the open.”

“How much powder you got left?” asked MacGregor. “They don’t look all too friendly.”

Perched in the enclosure the two watched the Utes surround their position. It was beginning to get dark. The wind picked up and the blue sky turned purple. Prepared for what could be their last fight Healy and MacGregor again checked their arsenal.

“If they come at us after dark we’re fried,” gasped Healy. “There are at least twenty of them that I’ve spotted so far.”

The night dragged on slowly with every little sound foretelling an attack, but none came.

“Remember what they did to that scouting party up here last fall?” said Healy. “It wasn’t pretty.”

“Maybe they just want your mule,” offered MacGregor. “An animal like her is worth a lot up in this country.”

 “I think they want more than the mule,” retorted Healy. “I think they want our scalps.”

As the morning arrived the men could see smoke from a large campfire up above. The Utes had not moved. Now it appeared some ten to fifteen more warriors had joined the original band. As the sun crept higher into the sky MacGregor began playing his harmonica.

“What are you doing!” screamed Healy.

“What’s the harm in a little tune? They know we’re here. Maybe they’ll leave us be if they think we’re crazy enough.”

The music flowed; Darlin’ Clementine bounced off the rocks and whirled upward, seducing one Ute out into the open.

“What’s he doing? I got a clean shot if…”

“Wait,” said MacGregor. “I think he likes my playin’.”

As the man approached it became clear that indeed, he liked the music. He was smiling. When he got closer he stopped, put his hand to his mouth, stomped his foot and began spining in a circle. Then he stopped and stared and repeated the ritual again.

“He wants you to play more music,” said Healy. “I can’t believe this.”

MacGregor put his harp to his lips and began a scattered rendition of Dixie. Now several Utes popped up their heads. MacGregor performance grew bolder as he now had an audience. He followed with Sweet Virginny, Healy joining in harmony of sorts despite a wad of tobacco in his cheek.

The first Ute approached gesturing that he wanted to examine the harmonica. He was still smiling and MacGregor turned it over to him.

“I haven’t seen one of these outfits since my last trip to Paris,” said the Ute in perfect English. “What will you take in trade?”

Healy and MacGregor were stunned. Paris? This was 1861. Nobody from these mountains had been to Paris. Was he talking France?

“What will you take in trade?” repeated the Ute now holding the harmonica tightly.

“Water,” bellowed Healy. “We’ll take water and maybe some tobacco.”

MacGregor was not pleased. The harmonica was his and he didn’t cotton to parting with it.

“Why don’t you offer him that stupid red hat instead,” he asked. “Maybe we can trade that for water, or maybe your mule and the hat for free passage.”

Two others, quite mesmerized by the instrument, now joined the Ute. Each took his turn blowing into the harp, laughing and wrestling with each other for another go at it.

MacGregor stood up gesturing at his canteen. Within moments the deal was consummated. Healy looked at MacGregor, saddened from the loss of his harp.

“Here’s a little icing,” he said. “I’ll throw in my red hat too.”

He walked over to the Utes and gave them his tartan hat gesturing that it was theirs to keep.

“I haven’t seen one of these since I was in Edinburgh,” said one of the Utes, placing the red hat on his head happily.

You can keep it as a gift,” said Healy. “I can always get another one but this here scalp is one-of-a-kind.”

Soon the two men were alone. The Utes had disappeared and were not seen again.

“I’d love to see the look on the faces of the next white party that runs across these Utes, what with the harmonica and head gear,” quipped Healy.

“We should have held out for more than water,” said MacGregor, “but at least we are alive. I’ll buy a hundred new harmonicas and even get you another red hat after we strike it rich.”

– Kashmir Horseshoe



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