1854, Sacramento, California, USA
Ahiga stretched his hands and stood upright, wiping the beads of sweat as his skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, he continued digging again – his passage to freedom.
The lacerations on his bronze-skinned back oozed fresh blood. The hot summer sun stung his bruises and pain throbbed through his lean, twelve-year-old body. But he couldn’t stop digging. He had to find that elusive yellow rock before the Smith family came back from Sunday Mass.
His master, Mr.Smith had called it gold. Having spent two years on this ranch, Ahiga had eventually picked up their language. It was only now that Ahiga comprehended the reason all the palefaces* had flocked to this sacred land: in search of a treasure which would give them more riches.
When Mr.Smith was showing off the shining rock to his wife, Ahiga had peeked a glimpse. His ears perked up when Mr.Smith commented, “Darling, this land is made of gold. There is gold to be found everywhere; in its rivers, mountains, even in its dirt.”
In his innocent heart, he imagined the rock to have magical capabilities. He wondered if the rock could grant him his freedom. But even at such a tender age his mind was experienced enough to know that magic only existed in Shima’s* stories. He envisioned other possibilities though.
If I can find gold of my own and hand it to them, they will get the bail amount paid for me to the kidnappers. I can be free then.
With this hope of freedom in his heart, he had decided to dig at the base of the butte surrounding the ranch.
But where will I go once I am free? What if my tribesmen are all dead? Ahiga’s memory took him back to the horrific incident which had brought him to the ranch.
“Naat’áanii*, there is danger looming on the horizon.” A well-wisher from another tribe had warned the Chief of Ahiga’s tribe. “We have heard from the tribes who understand the language of the palefaces, that the new rulers of our land do not want our presence here. They have put rewards for our heads and groups of palefaces are searching and killing all the tribes.”
Ahiga’s tribe went into hiding. But one night as they camped in the gulch, they were ambushed by the palefaces. As Naat’áanii approached them with his hands held high, they killed him with a smoke-billowing weapon. Ahiga saw his chest open up in a hole, and dark, thick blood pouring out of it. There was mayhem after that.
“Ahiga… Run from here as far as you can… ” Shima had shouted as she ran clutching his baby sister in her arms. Her voice brought the killers’ attention to her. Before Ahiga could move, he saw his baby sister plucked from Shima’s bosom and thrown up in the air. Her small body landed with the sound of her skull cracking.
As he stood dumbstruck, unable to move his leaden legs, he was scooped up on the horse of a paleface. Shima’s cries reached his ears with the howling of the wind.
“T’aa shoodi*, let me go. What will you get by taking me?” Ahiga had cried and pleaded with the man, despite knowing well that he would not understand his tongue.
But to his surprise, the man replied in Ahiga’s tongue, “By selling you I will get lots of money, Yázhí. What can you give me in return for your freedom? Do you have ‘gold’?”
Ahiga had not understood then what the last word meant. But now he did.
I have to find the gold. I have to be free. For Shima. Two years and she hasn’t seen my face. Where will I look for her once I am free? What if she is dead?
While his mind was still on Shima, his ears caught the sounds of hooves running in the direction of the house. The family was back.
“ALEX! ALEX! …
Where, in the name of God, were you loitering?” A resounding slap preceding his question, Mr.Smith set out to teach Ahiga a lesson with the whip in his hand. More than the physical pain that they inflicted on him, Ahiga was tortured by the loss of his name. He loved it. ‘A fighter’, Shima had beamed proudly while telling him the meaning of his name. But Mrs.Smith insisted on changing it.
“A heathen word will not be used in my house.” She had declared on the first day of her arrival.
Ahiga, while bearing the hard thrashing for a reason as insignificant as being moments late to attend his masters, vowed;
I would not let you down Shima… I will fight to live. I will get my identity back.
Mrs.Smith bellowed, “I have been telling you John, this savage boy will bring the wrath of the Lord on us. On the day of God, when we want nothing but peace to keep our hearts purified, he comes up with some reason for you to lose your temper. Look at his eyes. They have no remorse in them.
“I press on you that we need to convert him into a God-fearing Christian but you care less for my words. Now… enough. Let’s go inside.” As Mrs.Smith sauntered inside, she shot one last look of disdain towards Ahiga.
Mrs.Smith had arrived last winter, from beyond the mountains. Till that time it was only Ahiga and Mr.Smith on the ranch. He was purchased by Mr.Smith from the market at J street, where the kidnappers had put him up for sale.
On her first day, she had questioned Mr.Smith about Ahiga’s presence and he had replied, “Darling! California is a free state. We are not allowed to keep Negro slaves. But the government of the land has allowed us to take custody of the Native American children under a new law. This is the only way I can keep a servant in this house without paying him wages.”
Mrs.Smith’s arrival had brought a new hope in Ahiga. He had expected that she would be kind to him and calm Mr.Smith down when he would punish Ahiga. But she turned out worse than him. She looked at Ahiga like he was filth. Every time they crossed paths, her eyes bore in him and he sensed hot coals in there.
“Alex! Once you finish cleaning up the barn, come by the front porch. It’s your time for Bible study.” Mrs.Smith had been insisting for him to study the scripture.
Since the time she had landed in California, she had only heard about the atrocities that these red devils* were committing on the white settlers who had come here looking for gold. They had recently killed the owner of a ranch in the town of Hangtown to steal his livestock.
News of this kind made Mrs.Smith sick with worry about her family’s safety. She hoped that she would be able to tame this savage by showing him the ways of God. Making him forget his identity, his roots was the first step towards controlling him.
“Mrs.Smith, I come for the study.” Ahiga murmured, cowering against the wall. He wanted this ordeal to be over before she got a chance to find fault with him. If he made a single mistake while repeating the Psalms, she was quick to bring the cane on his back. It seemed as if she sought some form of vengeance from him for his mistake to be born an Indian.
Ahiga’s living conditions had deteriorated since her arrival. From the time Mr.Smith had purchased Ahiga, he had been starving him by only providing one bowl of gruel a day and making him do hard labor on the ranch. But, Mrs. Smith? She would let him go hungry the whole day for as small a mistake as not wishing her ‘Good Morning’.
“John, I think a whipping is in the offing. This scapegrace here is in no mood to pay attention to the Bible today. It is the second time I see him lost in some thoughts and not repeating after me.”
Mr.Smith had been in a foul mood all day. Gold had become hard to find, all that was there to be found in the river beds had been collected. People kept flocking to California in search of this metal and it was getting more and more difficult for him to find a land where claims had not been laid.
And so he willingly obliged Mrs.Smith. Thrashing Ahiga second time in a day he yelled,
“Bloody Digger*…you think you can go on taking our instructions for granted. Here we are trying to improve your station in life, and you…thankless rascal! I have been observing you for some days now. Careless scamp…you seem to have forgotten your worth. I will remind you what a scumbag you are.”
The lashes burnt Ahiga’s skin every single time. He had hoped, by now his skin would be hardened with the dried wounds, but Mr.Smith always found some new skin to peel.
“But…Master…Ma’am… I stutter cause I didn’t understand… Trust me… I paying attention.” His words, hardly breaking through his sobs didn’t reach their ears, let alone their heart.
Sleeping hungry once again and having no one to nurse his wounds, Ahiga missed his Shima more. He longed for the warmth of her lap and the soothing strokes of her hand on his head which would instantly put him to sleep. But now he only had his pain and whimpers as companions.
Ahiga wasn’t sure he would be able to survive another day, he wanted to run away the next day.
But without the gold, if I am captured by the palefaces I will not have anything to offer them again. What if they return me to the Smiths? They will kill me. No! I need gold.
Clutching at this little thread of possibility, Ahiga labored through the next week, waiting for Sunday. He kept himself away from trouble as much as possible. He didn’t want any more lashings or days of starvation; for he wanted all his strength intact for the digging.
But luck wasn’t benevolent on him. Many Sundays passed without him finding any gold.
It was getting difficult for him to escape Mrs.Smith’s wrath. He was trying his best to study the Bible and say the prayers every time she asked him to recite them, but Mrs.Smith had now found a new obsession. She wanted to clear his skin of color. She thought that making him look white and pretty like them would make him feel grateful, thus ensuring his loyalty.
With the intent of achieving this goal, she made him bathe in bleached water. Sitting in that tub like a piece of cloth, the bleach stinging his wounds and burning his skin, Ahiga prayed fervently. Not to the Lord of Mrs.Smith’s Bible but the Great Spirits of his tribe. He prayed to them to let him find gold the next Sunday, to let him be free or else to finally take him in their embrace.
No sooner had Ahiga begun to dig at the foot of the butte surrounding the ranch, his shovel hit metal. Getting down on his knees, he scraped out a small box. A box? No Gold?
His limbs were beginning to get numb and his heart was sinking at the lost hope. But his mind told him to keep going. Using a small stone, as he broke open the box, his eyes welled up at the sight in front of him. Inside there were small coins made of the yellow metal.
His mind jumped into a whirlwind of thoughts.
The box looks familiar. Ah!! This is Mrs.Smith’s sewing box. This gold belongs to the Smiths. They must have hidden it here to safeguard it from thieves. I can’t get my freedom with this. They will recognize their gold.
But if I take it and run away before they come, I can use it as and when needed. Yes…this is my only chance.
There was no stopping Ahiga now. He held the box close to his chest and ran in the opposite direction of the house upwards on the butte. With the skills learned in his tribe, he was confident of climbing the butte and getting down on the other side before the Smiths realized his absence.
But Ahiga soon figured that he wasn’t as agile as before. The hot summer sun and his weakened body were slowing his pace. As he reached the top of the butte he heard the deafening sound of a gunshot. Taking cover behind a tree he peered towards the ranch and caught sight of Mr.Smith on his horse with a rifle in his hand. He appeared to be searching for him. Soon he would come across the pit dug by Ahiga, where he would find his hidden gold missing.
Ahiga did not wait to see Mr.Smith’s reaction when that happened.
The sun was beginning to move towards the west as Ahiga reached the bottom of the Butte. There was still enough light and he could not be found loitering around the town. He decided to take cover in the small forested area near the butte before running in the dark of night. He wanted to reach the Sacramento River, following its path he wished to reach the upper regions where he could meet some Indians. They may finally lead him to the remaining members of his tribe.
Ahiga had been on the run for some days now. On several occasions, he caught sight of the government militia patrolling the forests in search of Indians. Hitherto he had escaped their clutches.
But as he neared his destination, his luck ran out. He was seen by a paleface while he was digging tubers to eat. Ahiga ran for his life. Flashes from his earlier capture came rushing to him as he heard the man shoot. He ducked within thick foliage and lost the man. Inside, he felt a pull and was surprised to see some other Indians hiding.
He joined them at their camp. As the tribesmen sat around a fire and heard his story, they promised to take him to some womenfolk who they believed were from Ahiga’s tribe.
As Ahiga slept, feeling protected, and with the hope of a free life, he was unaware of the way his world had changed in the last two years.
The continuous running from the militia, starvation coupled with battling new diseases, and lack of resources, led the tribesmen on the verge of destitution. And now they found Ahiga who possessed with him the treasure of the land; gold.
And finally in the dark of night, freedom came to Ahiga.
His head lay cut on the side of his body; his eyes opened in shock and a lone tear streaked down his grimy face.
Palefaces : White Settlers who came looking for gold in California
Shima: ‘Mother’ in Navajo language
Naat’áanii: ‘Chief’ in Navajo language
T’aa shoodi: ‘Please’ in Navajo language
Yázhí: ‘Little one’ in Navajo language
Bloody Digger/Red Devils/ Savages : terms used by white settlers to describe Native American Indians.
1.The author has used Navajo language to denote the Native American tongue. This is the use of creative liberty. Though Navajos mainly belong to the Arizona region, their language is extensively available for translation as compared to other dialects which were dominant in California during the time of California Gold rush. Most of the native tribes were killed in the California Genocide and their dialects also died with them.
- In 1850, California passed an Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Under chapter 133 of this act, the state of California proclaimed Native American children to be ‘wards’ of government and assumed greater say over their lives than their parents. Child kidnappers even became the ‘legal guardians’ of Indian Children. This law has been the basis of the story told by the author. The proceedings of taking the children into custody was slightly different but again creative liberty has been used to enhance the drama in the fiction.
The above link can be checked to understand the full extent of California Genocide. The amount of reward on the heads and body parts of the Indians are also mentioned in this article.
Title Credit: Modified Lyrics from the Song ‘Always Remember Us This Way’ (from A Star Is Born)
Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward.
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